The answer is blowin’ in the wind…

Teaser Image Caption
An autorickshaw on Delhi's Rajpath

Summer is upon us, yet again, with more or less the same clockwork rhythm that has choreographed the dance of the seasons over the past thousands, if not millions, of years. Except that in recent years it has become a little wayward, in tempo as well as in intensity, thanks to the equally whimsical provocations of climate change.

But we seem to be numb to any subtle variation in the seasons, let alone its even subtler effects on the tangled web of life. Having gradually replaced our organic sensorium with one mediated by machines, we seem to have lost our age-old deep affinity with nature.

So, when we contemplate the summer ambience in New Delhi, now infamous for the ‘most polluted city’ tag, it appears limpid to the naked eye, and hence, supposedly, safe to breathe. But when we ask machines sensitive enough to detect pollutants tiny enough to slip through our senses, we get a totally different impression—the city’s air is far from safe; it ranges from unhealthy to hazardous, even if less perilous than in winters, when the city does turn into a deadly gas chamber.

As the phrase goes, out of sight, out of mind. In recent years, every winter the news media turn Delhi’s toxic air into a single-minded obsession, each day throwing at us not just alarming numbers and facts, but also unnerving images of the miasmic smog that hangs stubbornly over the city. But come summer, all talk of air pollution vanishes into thin air. Moral of the story: having seen the worst, anything less dramatic appears normal.

Into thin air

What’s true of the media is also true of politicians, indeed even of the laity. So, even as we continue to breathe foul air, no politician from any party has had the gumption to stoke the issue in the ongoing election campaigns. Nor have voters demanded it of them. Had elections been held in winter, with images of children going to school wearing masks splashed on news screens and papers, no seasoned politician could have turned a blind eye to it.

Intriguingly, however, amidst the conspicuous silence over air pollution in the election rallies, the two premier national political parties, Congress and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have for the first time made a promise to do something about it in their respective manifestos for the 2019 general elections.

Cynics may pooh-pooh this gesture as mere gimmick or even humbug. And for good reason—political parties have been notorious for going back on their promises. Nevertheless, the fact that air pollution has officially entered the political discourse is cause for some cheer for the hopeful; now, they believe, they can at least hold any future government to its promises, however rhetorical.

Be that as it may, the fact that it took political parties so long to even acknowledge the problem, let alone admitting its gravity (even after the capital earned in 2013 the dubious distinction of being the most polluted city in the world), raises several troubling and puzzling questions about the limits of democracy, science, law, ethics, advocacy, not to mention the nature of belief, in cracking a wicked problem like air pollution.

Smoke and mirrors

The BJP may have endorsed it in their election manifesto, but it is guilty of double-speak. Just this past week, as the election frenzy rises to a feverish pitch, the Union minister of environment, forests, and climate, Harsh Vardhan, reportedly dismissed a recent study that pinned on dirty air the death of about 1.2 millions Indians in 2017. He said that while polluted air does “affect health”, it is alarmist to say “it kills millions”.

This is not the first time the doctor-turned-politician has fecklessly made light of the hazards of air pollution. This January he told the Parliament that there is no conclusive proof linking dirty air to death when, ironically, just a month earlier, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), India’s premier medical research institution, had released a study suggesting that dirty air was responsible for one out of eight deaths in 2017.

The minister is openly sceptical of international studies and believes that only a domestic investigation can settle whether polluted air is culpable, as though bodies of Indians react differently to environmental hazards such as toxic air than those of non-Indians.

Vardhan-the-denier is not alone. He represents yet another addition to a long line of sophists dubbed as merchants of doubt, who infamously tried to disrupt and discredit the interminably long campaign to nail smoking to cancer. They argued ad nauseum that results of studies that are probably true of populations are not necessarily true of individuals. As the common refrain against epidemiological studies goes, correlation is not causation. However, since it would be downright unethical to carry out double-blind studies, the gold standard in medical research, directly on individuals, population studies across time and cultures are the only way a strong correlation could be deemed as a most probable cause.

That’s precisely what happened in the case of smoking. After years of wrangling over whether it causes cancer, a sordid saga in which cigarette companies used every possible machination from Machiavelli’s book—money, power, and the merchants of doubt—to get juries on their side, we all know who won eventually. There is hardly anyone now who questions the life-threatening perils of smoking.

But what’s tragic (indeed it would be comic if it were not so serious) is that the same bogey has been used rather successfully in the case of harmful substances such as pesticides and asbestos, especially in the developing countries.

It seems merchants of doubt are now trying their dirty tricks on dirty air.

Agent provocateur

There is now a large body of scientific research implicating dirty air, both indoor and ambient, as a strong agent of disease and death. According to the latest data issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO), nine out of ten people around the world breathe toxic air, which kills seven million people every year. And not just by insidiously choking the lungs, which is how most people commonly experience smog. What is much less known is that dirty air is responsible for as many as one-third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease. Besides, a slew of recent studies suggest that polluted air could trigger or aggravate many other disorders such as depression, dementia, allergies, and perhaps most worryingly, it could even impair a child’s cognitive development.

This should scare most who care about themselves and their children into registering their protest. One gets the motivation of professional doubters hired by automobile corporations and governments, but what strange psychology explains the lack of outrage among the public? The trouble is dirty air works like slow poison. It gnaws away at the body’s vitals almost imperceptibly till it manifests itself as an extreme condition like lung cancer. Contrast it with a microbial infection, which directly and almost immediately elicits a violent response from the body in the form of a disease, such as dengue. Here, there is no scope for doubt or dithering, from the perspective of both personal and public health. The individual as well the administration must act swiftly in order to contain the offender before it wreaks havoc. This also explains why people don’t take chances with drinking water because the consequences are quick, certain, and damaging.

But how we value risks is mediated by many factors such as class, education, vulnerability, and personal worldview. That living in a smoggy city like Delhi might shorten your child’s life by 2.5 years might compel an affluent family to relocate to a safer place but it is unlikely to make much difference to the life of a poor family, which has far more urgent anxieties to contend with, like making ends meet.

For a large number of jobless youth whose lives are anyway on the edge, worrying about air pollution is perhaps some kind of luxury in the face of a bleak future. Then there are those who believe in living in the here and now, choosing not to worry about what might happen in the distant future. For them, fretting about the risks of dirty air is a waste of precious time. They are probably the ones who burst crackers last Diwali despite the ban. They are also probaby the ones who don’t think twice before buying gas-guzzling SUVs.

Not surprisingly, campaigns for clean air in cities like New Delhi are by and large championed by concerned citizens from the middle and upper middle class, and even among them especially those belonging to the intelligentsia such as journalists, physicians, lawyers, professors, and environmental activists. Nor is it surprising that most of the protest marches are largely confined to South Delhi, where most of the relatively affluent professional class dwells.

The only outliers that defy this widespread indifference are those whose respiratory systems are already compromised, especially the ageing and asthmatics, and of course children, in whose name many parents might, indeed have, join clean air campaigns in Delhi.

To be sure, no one knows what kind of messaging might do the trick. For example, when WHO says that air pollution kills 9 million people every year around the world, it doesn’t mean people are dropping dead because of dirty air. It means dirty air is one of the leading abettors of death such as obesity and stress. Figuring the death toll of air pollution is much more difficult than say of cancer, for which there is a well-maintained registry, because polluted air typically makes common ailments like bronchitis progressively worse.

Clearly, it’s not easy to impress the dangers of dirty air on the popular will. Expectedly, this lack of public outrage becomes an alibi for political parties to not do anything about it. For, doing something about it, for instance reducing automobile and power plant emissions, phasing out old engines and fuels, putting a limit on the number of cars plying in a city, and building an affordable public transport system, among others, would exact a toll on the economy. And a party that is not sure whether it would still be in power after five years would be loath to take such political risks.

Little wonder, a recent report titled Political Leaders Position and Action on Air Quality in India by Climate Trends, an advocacy outfit based in New Delhi, discovered that members of Parliament (MP) from 14 most-polluted cities like Delhi, Varanasi, Patna, Lucknow, Kanpur, and Jaipur remained “inactive” and “silent” over their five-year term.

Courting intervention

In the event of both popular and political will missing, the judiciary often steps in as the disruptor. This is what happened in the 1990s when Delhi’s atmophere was shrouded in a poisonous cocktail of emissions from automobiles and power plants. The erstwhile government was indifferent to the problem. So were the residents. However, an uncanny rapport between a sympathetic Supreme Court and a zealous clean air campaign spearheaded by the Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) not only succeeded in replacing all but private diesel vehicles with compressed natural gas (CNG)-run alternatives, but also phase out antiquated engines and dirty fuel. Even though the science of air pollution was weak at the time, the Apex Court used legal doctrines such as the precautionary principle, the polluter pays principle, and the right of health and clean environment as part of right to life to push the controverisal reforms through.

However, courts are nothing but the sum total of its judges and their respective sense of jurisprudence. The 1998 landmark judgment did lead to an improvement in Delhi’s air quality. However, before long the unchecked growth in the number of vechicles in the city wiped out all the gains till it was crowned the most polluted city in the world in 2013. Even though air pollution has been a constant fixture in the public  and legal discourse since, the judiciary has been more reactive than pro-active.

In 2017, in response to a petition filed on behalf of three kids, the Supreme Court (SC) imposed a sudden ban on the sale and bursting of firecrackers both in the run-up to and in the wake of Diwali. This decision provoked protests from both traders and Hindu religious leaders alike. Last year, the same petitioners asked the Apex court to re-invoke the ban, but this time the Court took middle ground by allowing bursting of crackers only between certain hours. It also put the responsibility of implementing the ban on local police stations. However, the ban was flouted with impunity.

But firecrackers is a small piece in the complicated air pollution jigsaw. While the ban did ensure that air didn’t turn as noxious in earlier years, the air was still terribly unhealthy because of other sources of pollution such as vehicular exhaust, thermal power plants, brick kilns, open wood burning, construction dust, not to mention crop burning in the farms of Haryana and Punjab.

A wicked problem

Multiple stakeholders, multiple sources, complex science needed to investigate it, not to mention complicit and confounding atmospheric conditions—crop-burning in Punjab and the spate of dust storms from the Arabian desert running amok in parts of north India in recent years for instance, make air pollution a politically wicked problem.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about air pollution is that it seems like a mafia-like operation—diffuse and suspenseful. What the air-quality monitors capture is the amorphous cocktail of all the pollutants after they have escaped their respective sources. But in order to attack the problem, what we need to know is what source is polluting what and how much—what researchers call source-apportionment studies.

Only a handful of such studies have been carried out in India and almost all of them for the national capital region. While in popular perception vehicular emissions might appear as the arch-baddy, which it is (responsible for up to 30 per cent of PM 2.5 load averaged over a year), apportionment studies suggest there are other equally if not more culpable accomplices (all unwitting) to the crime, like biomass burning (open wood fires for cooking and heating in winters, all up to 20 per cent), industries (up to 20 per cent), waste burning (up to 15 per cent). As researchers are still trying to figure out the precise degree to which these different actors are party to the crime, governments exploit this uncertainty to either pass the buck or score political brownie points by blaming their rivals. For instance, last winter AAP put the blame squarely on crop burning in neighbouring states, while the incumbent BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and Congress accused AAP of not doing enough to check vehicular pollution.

Multiple sources also suggest there are as many stakeholders in the fight against and blame-game over air pollution. This implies that any political party’s blueprint on solving the air pollution problem will depend on its financial and political stakes in each of the sources. So a political party that deems the automobile industry indispensable to the nation’s economy or receives funds from it is likely to be soft on it. Likewise a political party for whom farmers and poor migrants are an important constituency is unlikely to dwell too much on emissions from burning crops or firewood.

The problem of multiple sources and stakeholders apart, lack of scientific consensus over what levels and mix of pollutants might pose an unacceptable risk to people complicates the problem even further.

For instance, there is more than one opinion on what is a safe level of particular matter (PM) 2.5 (fine particles about 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair). Mostly produced when fossil fuels are burnt—in vehicles, thermal power plants, crop burning and wood stoves, they are so fine they can easily penetrate the deeper recesses of the lung, thus causing all manner of respiratory and heart ailments.

Even though some scientists believe no threshold is safe for PM 2.5, different nations have set their own thresholds depending on the strength of their economy—lower limit means more efficient engines and cleaner fuels, all of which cost more. This means wealthier nations can afford to have lower limits. So, the PM 2.5 limit over 24 hours is 12 in the US, 25 in the EU, 60 in India. WHO recommends 30.

India finds it exremely difficult even to maintain a safe level of 60. No surprise then that according to recent report released by Greenpeace and AirVisual, 22 of the 30 most-polluted cities in the world are in India.

While PM 2.5 may have become the most important litmus test for air quality, we musn’t forget that burning of fossil fuels also emits other dangerous pollutants such as oxides of nitrogen and sulphur, ozone, carbon monoxide, and a toxic brew of volatile organic compounds. Scientists are still trying to figure out how these noxious gases, either solo or in concert, jeopardise human biology, let alone that of other species.

As undesirable as these pollutants are, keeping them at bay severely tests the limits of democracy. Take the peculiar case of the state of Delhi, which is adminstered by two governments of two different, not to mention mutually-hostile, political parties, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the state and BJP at the centre. The former wanted to buy more public buses but claims the latter did not let them. Unable to check the pollution, AAP put the blame on crop burning in the neighbouring states of Punjab (ruled by Congress) and Haryana (ruled by BJP) as the major contributor to Delhi’s pollution burden in winters. Despite several requests to curb the burning, AAP claims neither government did anything about it. The BJP, on the other hand, decried the SC ban on firecrackers as it hurt the religious sentiments of the Hindu community, their core vote bank.

Given the compulsions of politics and economics, governments tend to go for low-hanging fruits, like not allowing trucks into the city when pollution levels cross the danger mark; or halving the number of vehicles on the road by allowing only odd or even numbered cars on a given day; or installing giant air purifiers in heavily polluted areas; or shutting down power plants and building construction work when pollution is dangerouly high.

However, these stop-gap measures provide only partial and short-term relief. In fact, all through these operations, pollution levels remain much higher than the safe threshold. Clueless as to what to do, those (mostly well-off) anxious about breathing dirty air hunker down, as it were, into their bunkers—wear expensive masks outdoors, install expensive air purifiers in homes, stop going for morning walks, and not letting children play in the open. Those who can afford simply leave the city for greener pastures. Meanwhile, the poor go on labouring business as usual.

Up in the air

Clearly, any attempt to curb air pollution will have to willy-nilly strike a compromise between the conflicting demands of electoral politics, economy, and public health. This is manifest in the rather haphazardly prepared manifestos of different political parties for addressing the crisis in the next five years. AAP, for instance, intends to cleanse Delhi’s air by, among other moves, inducting a fleet of electric buses and vacuum cleaning the roads. This roadmap is not ambitious enough given the scale of the problem but understandable, for AAP knows it is futile to make grand promises unless Delhi is granted full statehood.

The BJP’s roadmap promises to reduce air pollution in 102 cities by 35 per in the next five years. It also promises to put a complete halt to crop burning by 2022. Finally, it plans to turn the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) into a mission. However, as Santosh Harish of the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) told, the trouble with the NCAP “mission” is that, one, it’s not legally bound to achieve its goals; two, it doesn’t have well set-out timetable; and three, it doesn’ fix accountability in case it fails to meet its objectives.

Congress’ blueprint, on the other hand, is perhaps the first honest admission of the gravity of the problem—it refers to it as “a national health emergency.” It too promises to strengthen the NCAP with stricter standards, regulations and their enforcement.

None of them, however, spell out how they are going to achieve their stated goals. Curiously, but then not so curiously, all of them remain equivocal about taking more daring step such as limiting the number of private vehicles, or expanding the public transport system, or decongesting cities, or privileging the walker and the cyclist over the motorist.

The blueprints also do not reflect a comprehensive understanding of the problem. For instance, they don’t talk about indoor air pollution, which affects a much larger population. Likewise, they seem oblivious of millions of Indian citizens who have been inhaling toxic air emanating from coal mines and coal-fired thermal power plants.

Lastly, they assume we have understood the problem well and that all we need to do now is to crack it. For example, they talk about air pollution as though it is only an urban phenomenon, which clearly it is not. For, in winters, when smog becomes a clear and present danger, almost the entire span of the Indo-Gangetic plain is shrouded in what scientists call the Asian Brown Cloud (now renamed as the Atmospheric Brown Cloud as it is not peculiar to the sub-continent as earlier believed), a giant brown blotch of pollutants stemming from vehicles, factories, thermal power plants, brick kilns, and firewood burning. Although not fully unravelled yet, scientists believe the Cloud can dramatically alter the material conditions of millions of people in myriad ways, from choking lungs and marring crop yields to more global ones that include making cyclones more ferocious in the Arabian Sea, delaying monsoons, and boosting global warming.

As political manifestos go, it would be a little naïve to expect political parties to make dirty air history in the foreseeable future. Unless of course there is a radical technological disruption like all vehicles going electric, or almost everyone switching from firewood/coal stoves to gas or solar stoves, or a rapid phasing out of coal-fired thermal power plants and coal-burning factories.

With a little political will, the second disruption may appear more realistic than the other two. In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences makes the rather controversial claim that if India could get rid of cooking fuels like wood and coal, it would (take a deep breath!) “reach national air pollution standards” without even touching vehicular and industrial emissions.

Wow, but that’s a lot of pigs flying together. Given the structure of our economy and polity, no political party is likely to pursue disruptive dreams they can’t fulfill in the short period of five years. In other words, no radical shocks to the deeply entrenched economy, not to mention to the political economy on which most political parties thrive—the obscene amounts of money, much of it unaccounted for, being spent in the ongoing elections is a case in point.

Truth be told, all we can look forward in the short term are small technological tweaks like cleaner fuels, more efficient engines, less polluting industries, and stricter emission standards. All of that may make the air less toxic but won’t make it healthy. Governments know this and therefore there are proposals afoot to make the network of air-quality sensors more dense so that the administration can at least forecast the quality of air in real time round the clock.

However, even these half-measures won’t come cheap. Pampered cities like Delhi might even marshall the resources to procure them but what about cash-strapped mofussil towns like Muzaffarnagar or Ludhiana or Gwalior, where the air as dirty as in Delhi. Besides, air-quality forecasts might work for the relatively affluent, but they hardly make sense for those living hand-to-mouth. Indeed, a recent study by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) based in Laxenburg, Austria, and the Delhi-based Council on Energy, Environment, and Water (CEEW) suggests that even if India were to abide by the current air polluton norms, over 670 million Indians would still be breathing dirty air in 2030.

As bleak as it might sound, the discontents of bad air pale beside the existential angst over an increasingly likely planetary collapse precipitated by global warming. Climate change is without doubt an infinitely more wicked problem than air pollution, for it requires the political wisdom and will of at least the top 20 carbon-emitting nations. But if it’s any consolation, the fate of our lungs is intimately tied to the fate of our climate. If only we could check global warming, which means getting rid of fossil fuels, we would have automatically taken care of dirty air.

If only! For, given the distressingly tardy rate of progress in curbing carbon emissions, it would be a miracle if nations of the world manage to honour their respective Paris commitments by 2030, and thereby prevent a 2-degree rise in global mean temperatures.

The famous British economist John Maynard Keynes once quipped that in the long run we are all dead. Cynics might take solace in this wisdom. However, the wily Indian politician, known for his uncanny genius for survival against heavy odds, might yet sense in the climate crisis an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Or so we earnestly hope.

Disclaimer: This article was prepared with the support of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung India. The views and analysis contained in the publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung.