A clean air policy

Pollution equals death, disease and economic burden.

In the hurly burly of politics in an election year (nine states and the run-up to next year’s parliamentary election) and in the backdrop of an economy battling stagflation, the release of two reports has gone relatively unnoticed by those who set the national policy agenda.  But the findings of both are alarming in the extreme. If ignored, there can be serious repercussions since they relate to the economy of the country as well as the well-being of its populace.

Air pollution

First, the more recent of the two reports:  Just last month the World Bank released a report titled, “India—Diagnostic Assessment of Select Environmental Challenges”. It contained the most damning revelation that the total cost of environmental degradation in India is an estimated Rs 3.75 trillion (US$80 billion) annually, equivalent to as much as 5.7 percent of the GDP. Of this, air pollution itself accounts for Rs 2 trillion (outdoor air pollution for Rs 1.1 trillion and indoor air pollution for Rs 0.9 trillion).

Earlier this year, the pathbreaking and mammoth “Global Burden of Disease Study” was released.  Involving the World Health Organisation and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, this was a 50-country collaborative project that looked at 187 countries.  It found that outdoor air pollution was the fifth leading cause of death in India, with indoor air pollution being, hold your breath, the second leading cause of death. More people are dying due to air pollution related respiratory and cardiovascular diseases than ever before. The total number of healthy years of life lost due to air pollution is estimated at a whopping 18 million. The concomitant impact on the economy is truly debilitating. While all sections of society are affected by poor air quality, the lower income groups pay a much higher price.

That air pollution had assumed crisis proportions in the country was well-known. A recent study had ranked India 126th among the 132 countries surveyed, behind every country in the subcontinent– and even behind China. We have some of the most polluted cities on earth. As many as 13 out of the 20 most toxic cities in the world are in India. It was also known that indoor pollution, the bane of rural and semi-urban India, is as bad as the outdoor pollution in urban India. But it is certainly an eye-opener that the poisoned air we breathe is directly linked to disease and death and causes a major loss to the economy.

This flies in the face of the long-held belief that green initiatives address irritants and are for the rich because they are cost-intensive and they are anti-growth. Developing countries that are on the rise have to factor in air pollution as acceptable collateral damage in the pursuit of the holy grail of double-digit growth. Clean air policies come in the fast-paced development.

Now that it is clear that toxic air takes lives and hurts the economy, it would be salutary to see what might be the consequence of reversing the trend and making policy interventions that encourage and even promote investments in green initiatives.

It has been argued, and in the same World Bank study mentioned here, that a low-emission, resource-efficient greening of the economy can take place at a very low cost in terms of GDP growth. In other words, adaptation and mitigation policies, programmes and projects, if pursued on a moderate scale, will have anything but a severe impact on growth. For instance, a ten percent particulate reduction will lead to only a 0.3 percent loss in GDP and a negligible reduction in GDP growth rate. This trade-off should be acceptable, considering the gains that will accrue in terms of a cleaner environment and saved or healthier lives for the citizenry. Overall, it would ensure the sustainability of future growth.

Delhi’s switchover to compressed natural gas (CNG) for buses, taxis and auto-rickshaws, combined with an aggressively pursued mass rapid transit programme, has worked wonders in terms of countering the poison plumes of the corrosive sulphur dioxide. Delhi’s air is unacceptably poisoned in other ways, with some experts saying that it is more so that even Beijing’s. But this is a sterling example of a green approach to public policy that has paid dividends and, therefore, deserves to be adopted elsewhere.

The need of the hour in India is to explore a basket of solutions that can collectively help improve the air quality scenario. Besides cleaner fuel sources, we should look at seriously promoting solutions like energy efficiency in all areas, including thermal generation; renewable energy; clean coal technologies; legally binding national air quality standards; action plans for “critically polluted areas”; and conservation as a part of holistic mitigation approach.

The biggest challenge in India is not of awareness among policy-makers of either the seriousness of the challenge or the solutions thereof. What is lacking is the realisation that the challenge needs to be addressed on a war-footing since it exacts a heavy toll, through death and disease, which in turn impacts the economy.  A way to address this would be introduce a health cost in decision making. Policy makers and implementers would be less inclined to under-play pollution control measures and more forceful in their implementation if they were constantly reminded that there is a tremendous health cost to pay for tardiness on either score.

Photo: hapal