Delhi is choking again. Levels of PM2.5 — fine particulate matter in the air known to cause heart and lung diseases — routinely swing between the “unhealthy” and “hazardous” ranges on the Air Quality Index, with the measurement spiking to an eye-popping 999 on November 27.
An estimated 24 million residents of Delhi and its surrounding areas in the “National Capital Region” are clothed in a perennial haze through the winter months, breathing a toxic mixture of dust, construction dust, smoke from agricultural stubble being burnt in the nearby states, and vehicle exhaust.
Chennai, a state capital in the south, is sometimes worse than Delhi, thanks to petrochemical works, car factories, and coal-burning power stations spewing pollutants into the air.
Doctors are reporting a sharp rise in respiratory illnesses, especially the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, in which patients’ airways are blocked by the soot and carbon particles they have inhaled.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, heading into the COP21 climate talks in Paris, has argued for the “advanced countries” to assume greater responsibility in reducing emissions.
“We are striving to meet the aspirations of 1.25 billion people, 300 million more of whom will soon have access to modern sources of energy while 90 million gain running water,” he wrote in a Financial Times op-ed piece Nov 30.
“Justice demands that, with what little carbon we can still safely burn, developing countries are allowed to grow,” he asserted.
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Invoking Mahatma Gandhi’s advice, the country’s cultural heritage, ancient texts, sacred groves and community forests, the prime minister sought to assure that Indians are pre-disposed to being environment-friendly.
If only history and ancient culture could comfort the coughing, wheezing, gasping millions, or the children in Delhi and its neighborhood who will never regain their full lung capacity.
A country deserves to use all the tools available to it to drive economic growth, create jobs and prosperity, and importantly, meet the “aspirations” of its people. But the endgame has to be providing quality of life.
India’s cities and towns are piling cars and two-wheelers on already congested roads at double-digit growth rates — a dubious achievement for the users that spend ever-increasing hours on their daily commutes. And there is more poison in the air for anyone not in the comfort of an air-conditioned car on those roads.
Modi wants to provide electricity to the 300 million in the country still living without it. But if coal is going to be the only or even the predominant fuel to achieve that, he may need to provide face masks to millions more and ask them to accept donning them outdoors as a way of life.
Sure, India’s per capita carbon dioxide emissions, at 1.6 mt per person in 2012, are among the lowest compared with 16.4 mt per person in the US and 7.1 mt in China. The country’s renewable energy program and ambitions to achieve a third of installed electricity generation capacity based on solar, wind and water by 2030, is widely cited and lauded.
What is lamentable and should be unacceptable — to Modi and to the 24 million NCR residents — is Delhi topping the WHO’s list of the world’s most polluted cities. And even more tragically, for India to be home to 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities.
Pollution in India is pervasive, across air, water and land. Of the three, air pollution is arguably the most insidious and inescapable killer.
It’s ironic, but what Modi is arguing for on the world stage is India’s right to become the world’s factory and sprint its way to stronger economic growth on compromised lungs.