March 30, 2017 10:00 am JST
Tea Leaves

India's air is filthy -- but at least it's democratic

Despite government, public complacency, appalling pollution leading to "airwakening"

PALLAVI AIYAR

New Delhi needs to keep its streetlamps on even after sunrise in winter because of its thick smog. (Photo by Yuji Kuronuma)

Globally, China and air pollution remain synonymous. I lived in Beijing between 2002 and 2009, when visits to India invariably included conversations with aunties delightedly commiserating about China's toxic air. "Oh ho! Such terrible pollution. Tch! Tch!"

This tone of schadenfreude stemmed from the fact that after years of marveling at China's economic ascent, Indians seemed to find some comfort in knowing that their dynamic northern neighbor had some real problems, too.

"Is it really that bad, beta [my child]?" the aunties would ask, egging me on to confirm their best fears. The truth was, and is, that it is bad -- but not as bad as India. According to NASA satellite data, the levels of fine particulate matter, PM2.5, worsened across India by 13% between 2010 and 2015, while China's fell by 17%. There is finally one race in which India seems to be beating China. Unfortunately, it is a race to the bottom.

A new report released by the U.S.-based Health Effects Institute attributes 1.1 million deaths per year to toxic air in India. While this is still slightly lower than in China, the rate of increase of such deaths in India far outpaces its northern rival. While PM2.5-related premature deaths in China have risen by 17.22% since 1990, in India they have increased by 48%. A 2013 report by the same organization put air pollution ahead of other factors such as alcohol use, high cholesterol and high blood sugar as a risk factor contributing to the national burden of disease in India.

What strikes many rich-country expats about the pollution in cities like New Delhi is people's reaction to it. Instead of panicking about the public health crisis as the expats themselves do, locals seem to respond to news about pollution with a mixture of ignorance, fatalism and complacency.

It is sometimes dismissed as harmless bad weather -- fog. Almost everyone seems to think that dirty air is an unmodifiable fact of life -- something one must put up with and shut up about. This is a common Indian response to everything from poverty to patriarchy. We accept the distasteful, unhealthy and even inhumane as part and parcel of the karma of having been born Indian.

Emergency measures

But the steady emergence of a health-conscious middle class, greater international exposure and truly appalling levels of pollution have begun to lead to an "airwakening" of sorts. Emissions standards for cars have been strengthened and restrictions placed on the sale and registration of diesel vehicles. This past winter, pollution levels were so abysmal that the Delhi government instituted emergency measures for the first time, including closing down schools and construction sites. The city's authorities have also been experimenting with alternately restricting cars on the road to only those with odd- or even-numbered license plates on particular days.

The challenge for a country like India is that pollution is but one drop in an ocean of urgent problems. Last winter, the almost corporeal air that followed the firecrackers of the festival of Diwali in October led to a moment of true public outrage. But it proved short-lived. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's shock "demonetization" announcement, which took about 80% of all cash in India temporarily out of circulation, shoved the bad air off the national front pages.

In India, temperature inversion, which traps cold air -- and pollution -- at low levels, along with seasonal agricultural burning, make winter the time when pollution is most visible, and therefore topical. It is likely that the urgency to tackle dirty skies will now fade until it bursts into the media again, like a firecracker at the next Diwali.

In fact, New Delhi's air remains hazardously polluted all year round. PM2.5 levels decrease in the hot months, but ozone levels peak in the summer. Ground-level ozone is formed when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds are exposed to each other in sunlight. Warm temperatures are a catalyst for higher levels of ozone. India records the highest number of ozone-related deaths in the world. According to the latest HEI report, such deaths in India have soared by 148% since 1990, compared with a 48% rise for deaths due to particulate matter. Ozone-related premature deaths in India are 33% higher than those in China.

Dirty air is truly democratic. It cuts across caste and class barriers. Everyone breathes it and therefore everyone should have a strong interest in cleaning it up. In India, we have seen a surge of middle-class activism in recent years against corruption and violence against women. We now need a genuine civil society movement to emerge around air pollution.

Pallavi Aiyar is the author of "Choked: Everything You Were Afraid to Know About Air Pollution."

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