Clean and clear

Clean and clear

Environmental experts say India can still make up for lost time on its environmental policies. By Sharang Bhaskaran

For far too long,  many people have considered combatting air pollution and promoting development to be dissonant or opposing ideas, but promoting development and combatting air pollution are like different sides of the same coin. Without one, you cannot have the other. The United States Embassy with the Research Triangle International (RTI) and IIT, Delhi organised a series of workshops on combatting air pollution in North India to be held in New Delhi, Chandigarh, Jaipur, and Lucknow over the next two weeks.

The objective of the workshops is to provide a forum to initiate and strengthen collaboration between U.S. and Indian air quality experts, consider best practices to combat air pollution in North India, and build consensus and strategy for follow-on action.  About a dozen U.S. policy-makers, world-renowned scientists, and industry-sector experts are participating. The workshops will include presentations on the health effects of air pollution, impact on industry and their mitigation efforts, and air quality management and policy.

The workshop saw multiple panel discussions with several Indian and American scientists and researchers who discussed on the possible policy changes and that the Indian government drawing on the various pollution and emission laws and policies that the US has adopted over the years. The panel discussed how those policies can be modified according to the Indian economy and government, and taking into account India’s status as a developing economy. As India moves towards becoming a global entrepreneurial and manufacturing hub, there is an immediate requirement to reassess our current anti-pollution and emission laws.

A major key is public awareness which then spurs science-based policy action. For the most part, in democratic countries like the US and India, action comes when people understand the level of pollution they are exposed to and the health effects that result.  Indian public awareness of air pollution has grown rapidly, in large part due to some excellent reporting by various Indian media outlets and studies conducted by civil society organisations. Second, the Indian government is publicly recognising the problem in a much more frank and open manner than has ever been the case in the past. Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar’s assertion that “fresh air is a birth right” and the attention that Narendra Modi devoted to air pollution when he announced India’s new air quality index, shows that this issue is getting the type of high-level political focus needed for effective action. However, Sunita Narain, environmentalist and director general of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) said, “Despite the ongoing discussions on pollution and vehicular emission, this is a subject that will take a long time to be part of large-scale discussion across the country because it remains a non-issue during elections for Indian politicians.”

As time goes on, and more and more research is done, the direct health impact of air pollution becomes abundantly clear. Beyond the statistics of premature death, there is the anecdotal information that anyone living in a highly polluted city knows from their day-to-day experience: in the high pollution months more people are sick with respiratory ailments, more work days are lost, and the economy suffers as workers are less productive and school children miss out on their studies. In 2014, the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate — headed by former Mexican President Calderon and made up a “who’s who” of eminent persons from around the world including India - estimated the economic costs of air pollution. Losses due to premature death from air pollution alone — not including the costs of health care or the losses associated with the grinding suffering of chronic disease — is almost six per cent of GDP, which nearly cancels out India’s strong rate of economic growth. That number should certainly attract the attention of policy makers as they assess the cost-benefit analysis of a range of policy options.

Speaking on diesel vehicles, Arden Pope, a professor at the Brigham Young University said, “In the US, laws on diesel cars have become stricter, which is why automobile manufacturers have been prompted to develop better engines that limit the usage of diesel and these cars are already available in the USA.” Although such technology is yet to be adopted by Indian car manufacturers, the Supreme Court has imposed a ban on cars that are 2000cc and above. Narain said that the Centre for Science and Environment, based on research conducted has submitted its findings to the central government with the stated goal of India to reduce the energy intensity of the economy by 20-25 per cent until 2020. “Through, our proposal and the plan stated in it, we intend to get the central government to create a central registry of data on fuel economy, weight and sales of each car sold in a year to make compliance and verification transparent and the standards enforceable,” the environmentalist said.

The bottom line is that a cleaner future is well within our reach.  The technology to identify the sources of the worst pollution exists, as are the useful experiences and lessons learned of cities around the world that have confronted similar problems in the past and have found ways to clean the air, grow their economies, and improve the lives and health of their citizens.



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