China has declared war on air pollution. India needs to resume a long-derailed discussion on air quality.
A growing public obsession with air pollution, which experts have likened to a nuclear winter, appears to have prompted Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to declare “war” on the toxic quality of air found across Chinese cities. At the opening of the annual meeting of the largely rubber-stamp legislature, Li acknowledged that China’s environmental problems have hit crisis levels, and that its growth model would have to be adjusted to account for the alarming degradation of air and water quality.
India, which was recently clubbed with China in the levels of PM 2.5 in its urban centres — fine particulates that can penetrate the lungs and contribute to asthma, cancer and heart trouble — could also do with a renewed focus on air pollution.
When the annual Yale Environmental Performance Index in January ranked India a dismal 174 (out of 178) on air quality, the official response was, predictably, to question its methodology and squabble over reports that Delhi’s PM 2.5 concentration had surpassed Beijing’s.
But India’s own Central Pollution Control Board in 2011 found that nearly all cities were in violation of national standards for respirable particulate matter. Various studies have detailed the health costs of such pollution, with one even suggesting that air pollution is the fifth-largest killer in India and another estimating a loss of 3.3 years from life expectancy at birth for the millions who breathe dirty city air. Ignoring the data will not reduce the severity of the problem or the scale of the challenge.
Yet the debate on air quality in this country — as on a range of environmental issues — has been derailed by a whimsical politics and ideological posturing, especially by those in charge of the crucial environment ministry. A paralysing confrontation has been set up between environmental concerns and growth, a false choice that has hurt both growth prospects and the vital project to protect the environment. The environment debate needs to be rescued from its contrived oppositions in order to explore the opportunities that are created when industry is greened and growing incomes open up spaces for the adoption of more eco-friendly policies.