The air is thickening—with smoke, dust, carbon dioxide and all kinds of other harmful gases and pollutants. Sadly, the government is yet to wake up to the enormity of the crisis. The latest in a series of reports calling for a red-alert response is a study by Switzerland-based IQAir AirVisual and the environmental champion Greenpeace. According to the findings, India is home to seven of the 10 most polluted cities in the world, going by air-quality numbers recorded last year. Gurugram and Ghaziabad are the most polluted, while Delhi is the worst off among capital cities. Pollution usually peaks in winter, especially in the North where seasonal stubble burning by farmers unfailingly engulfs the area in a suffocating smog. After the initial noise in 2016 about getting farmers to stop this practice, nothing much has been done. In the years since, the area’s air quality has continued to oscillate between “very poor" and “hazardous". Apart from due expressions of concern and some PowerPoint presentations, the issue has attracted little by way of a response.
This January, the Indian government launched a “National Clean Air Programme" that proposed a “tentative national level target of 20%–30% reduction of PM2.5 and PM10 concentration by 2024". Given the fast deteriorating air in several Indian cities and its impact on the health of their residents, however, a far more urgent action plan needs to be mounted, an exercise that goes much beyond traffic gimmicks such as the Delhi government’s odd-even scheme of 2015. Strict rules on construction activity need to be implemented and the move towards cleaner fuels speeded up. The China model may also serve India well. Beijing was once among the world’s most insufferable cities. A national action plan imposed strict anti-pollution measures in 2013, with Beijing made to halve its coal consumption over the next five years. China also shut down smokestack plants, with the steel, aluminium and power generation sectors bearing the brunt of the action. According to The Economist, all new coal-burning capacity was banned and the use of filters and scrubbers increased. This led to a 25% drop in levels of PM2.5, the smallest measurable air particles that happen to pose the biggest health threat. The IQAir-Greenpeace findings reflect the progress made by Beijing. It has improved its air dramatically, even if it still exceeds the World Health Organization’s annual safety limits of 10g/m3.
The hidden cost imposed by pollution is rising sharply, too. According to Yeb Sano, executive director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, “In addition to human lives lost, there’s an estimated global cost of $225 billion in lost labour, and trillions in medical costs. This has enormous impacts on our health and on our wallets." India should pay heed before it’s too late. At a time when the government is keen to ascend the World Bank’s “ease of doing business" chart, images of people walking around Delhi in safety masks do little to attract investment. Raising India’s per capita income is a welcome goal, but it must not be at the expense of people’s quality of life. Economic prosperity counts for nothing if the health of a country’s citizens is poor.