India: The cloud hasn’t lifted

24th Feb, 2015

I deplore much of the bad press India receives.

Despite all the awful and devastating tales of violence against women, in my personal experience both Mumbai and Delhi are as safe as any UK city if common sense is in your arsenal (and your skin is white- more on that another time). Likewise, other crimes- such as muggings or burglary -which plague so many underdeveloped cities are rare in India.

Recent press has attacked the very atmosphere Indians live in, and for once I must concur with what has been said.  The inside windows of my apartment become black within a week of cleaning, the floors need vacuuming everyday thanks to grit and black dust blown indoors, and I have experienced some superficial side effects thanks to the chemically treated water in the taps.

Yet, occupying my thoughts at night in a terrified-fascinated cycle are the effects I cannot see. Recent reports by the World Health Organization (WHO) state that the level of PM2.5 in Delhi is the worlds worst, clocking in at 226. As a comparison, the icon of modern pollution- Beijing -is around a 119, dear-old London is a minor 16.

For those not au-fait with technical measurements of environment, here’s the breakdown. PM2.5 particles are approximately one-thirtieth of the width of a human hair. This size means they are able to enter the blood stream once inhaled into the lungs. Then, as they say, the fun really starts, causing asthma, strokes, cancers and heart attacks. Think of it as poisonous as asbestos, or the equivalent of being forced to smoke eight cigarettes every day.

Delhi is home to levels of PM2.5 fifteen times higher than the WHO would deem safe. The knock on effects of this is 1.6 million deaths a year in India caused just from pollution. Preventable, avoidable deaths amongst men, women and worst of all children, disproportionately skewed towards the lower classes that live and work alongside the city’s roads. According to the Indian Central Pollution Board, more than 40 per cent of children in Delhi have reduced lung functionality, a devastating estimate.  Indeed, a study connected to the American Embassy School in Delhi believes that the effects for children growing up in such air is probably irreversible, although admittedly studies have never dealt with levels as high as Delhi’s.

The monetary value of this pollution is estimated by the World Bank to be $18 billion, a figure excluding factors such as the subsequent, irreversible environmental costs, the opportunity cost of business by those deterred- to name a few. Reports have said that some embassies have quietly deterred diplomats with young families to reconsider a move to this city, and some have seen their Indian tours cut short. Delhi is not alone; India is home to thirteen of the world’s twenty most polluted cities.

Indeed, a study connected to the American Embassy School in Delhi believes that the effects for children growing up in such air is probably irreversible, although admittedly studies have never dealt with levels as high as Delhi’s.

How has Delhi managed to take the crown of most dangerous city on earth in which to breathe? 

The primary cause is the traffic. There are rock-bottom standards in India for fuel and vehicle emissions. The Indian government for years has subsidized the cost of diesel fuel. Vehicles aren’t able to install filters because the fuel simply has too much sulfur to do so. Thus, these cars pump out high quantities of toxins like sulfur, dioxins and carcinogenic particles ten times higher than regular gasoline exhaust.

The volume of cars contributes further. A study by Joshua Apte with Berkley and Delhi’s Institute of Technology found that PM2.5 readings were 50% higher during rush hour than before.

At present, only 5% of households own cars in India. Yet, by 2030 there are expected to be 400 million total cars on the roads. It won’t be until 2020 when India starts selling high-quality fuels on a widespread basis, according to Mr. Chandra, the oil ministry’s spokesman.

Out of the cities, the situation is no better. In rural India, inhalation of dung and paraffin stoves is similarly fatal, causing about 1 million deaths per year, as well as the widespread burning of crop stubble.

Additional decisions by the Modi government do not point to a clean-air future, as they recently promised to double the use of coal in the next five years.

To make matters much, much worse is the measurement of pollution conducted by Indian government environmental groups are unreliable. The Economic Times in India reported that when comparing PM2.5 measurement instruments, the difference between figures taken by international devices were 100% different to those taken by the Indian government approved ones. There is vague regulation to adhere to the American Environment Protection Agency, yet nobody checks that this is happening. Indeed, the Economic Times found that some instruments leaked air- faulty enough to not even collect the right amount of air to measure PM2.5 meaning that the already appalling figures could actually be worse.

In terms of India’s factories, since the 1990s they have been obliged to report their air quality to the state pollution boards. However, nobody checks that the factories are not just measuring the air far away from the factories, for example in nearby woods, or by changing the calibration of their instruments.

So, there is no national protocol on air measurement, there is no enforcement of the foreign rules on how to do it, and worst of all, there is no differentiation between industrial and residential areas on the optimum air quality. Therein lies an incentive for a polluting factory to locate closer to ‘cleaner’ residential areas rather than other factories to keep the overall average down.

A former UN climate change negotiator, Yvo de Boer is quoted as saying that India should “industrialize in a cleaner way”. Vague as it is unhelpful, India should not be expected to tackle this problem alone. The demands placed on developing nations by developed states typically ignore their own industrial-revolution path to growth.

The Indian government has plenty it could do. It should set up its own independent, non-partisan third party monitoring group with enforceable powers to dictate safe levels of air pollution, differentiating between residential, rural and industrial areas.

The refined fuels should be pushed through by the BJP as a matter of national security and stability. One estimate is that China’s air pollution costs it at least a tenth of GDP, and analysts have begun to fear that this could be the way for India too.

Mr. Modi launched the “Swach Bharat Abhiyan” (Clean India Mission) with great enthusiasm last October on Gandhi’s birthday. Yet somehow, the very air Indians breathe was not included in the wish to get India spruced up. I can only imagine the injustice Mr. Gandhi would feel in the common Indian breathing filth that the government and forces that be have let proliferate.

In January, Modi was asked if he felt pressure to act more aggressively on environmental issues. He answered that “India is an independent country and there is no pressure on us from any country or any person”. Two voices need to speak out to encourage the government to address this colossal issue.

The first is the public. The recent Delhi election shows the ability of the Indian voters to ask for more, demand change and take a risk. If BJP felt their enormous majority was at stake, perhaps change would begin. The second is the international community. Foreign governments should apply pressure to India until the situation improves, not just grin-and-bear it as the American Embassy did with the purchase of 1800 air purifiers for its staff. International companies working in Indian cities and factories should be incentivized to get clean or get out.

There is much for India to be proud of, yet this looming issue could begin to be the shame of a nation before too long.


Grace Lown is an Economics graduate born and raised in London. After graduating with her MSc in International Relations, she earned her wings in a London think-tank. Currently living and working in Delhi, India.