Is pollution in India as bad as China?
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Is pollution in India as bad as China?

These days when discussing air pollution, the topic usually culminates in China, where smog has become something of an emergency. This winter “airpocalypse” joined the litany of journalistic portmanteaus when airborne particulates in Beijing blocked out the sun, like some mythical, evil fog. Another of the horror stories of the industrial revolution had arrived in China.

While airpocalypse doesn’t sound as charming as a London “pea souper” — which was basically the same thing — what’s going on in that other industrializing Asian superstate? What do they call the shocking smog in India, where a whopping 180 cities exceed World Health Organization standards by a factor of six?

In India outdoor air pollution is the fifth leading cause of death and asthma, and kills more people there than in any other country. Don’t think you’re safe indoors either — smoke from cooking fires is the third biggest killer.

If you thought China’s enforcement of air quality standards was bad, in India tackling smog sounds even trickier.

From the New York Times:

Automobile sales in India have boomed, and diesel is the fuel of choice. Many industries pollute with impunity, defying existing environmental laws and regulations. Pollution monitoring in India is a haphazard affair. Industries know that even if they are caught polluting, criminal prosecution will take years to go through India’s overburdened courts.

In many ways the environmental problems in India mirror China’s: a growing middle class with a thirst for energy and private transportation, a booming coal power industry and poor control of polluters. Then there are those millions and millions of cooking fires literally choking the poor to death.

As pollution in the capital New Delhi hits an all time high, people are starting to ask what is being done to remedy the situation?

From Voice of America:

The high air pollution levels have triggered a debate on whether Delhi’s air has become dirtier than that of the Chinese capital, Beijing, which has long been under scrutiny for its dismal air quality among the world’s big cities. Delhi’s comparisons with Beijing began after a study by Yale and Columbia University ranked India at 174 out of 178 countries in air quality.

Though Indian cities are increasingly adopting stricter guidelines on pollution control and cleaner fuel, a recent study shows that nation-wide vehicle ownership is set to increase five times by 2030 from 2011 levels. With India already facing extreme particulate levels, those kinds of numbers do not inspire confidence. Yet what real changes can be expected when government health ministers deny links between illness and air pollution?


Pic: Justin Morgan (Flickr CC)

Fortunately all ministers do not share in “pollution denial”. Union minister for petroleum and natural gas M Veerappa Moily recently compared pollution to murder.

Moily is quoted in the Times of India:

Causing pollution is nothing short of attempt to murder or abetting murder. Stern action should be initiated. There should be zero-tolerance to pollution which is the biggest rakshasa (demon), much bigger and stronger than the ones mentioned in our scriptures. Death and agony because of pollution is 100 times more than that caused by two World Wars.

The argument for “paying the price” of industrialization is ultimately hollow. Pollution not only destroys natural resources, which are perennial sources of wealth, pollution-related human health issues cost the Indian economy billions of dollars each year. The World Bank estimates that cutting particulate emissions by just 30% by 2030 would save US$105 US in health costs.