In a long overdue move, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday launched a national air quality index for 10 cities while inaugurating a two-day conference of environment and forest ministers from the states and Union territories. The index, which will be expanded to 46 more cities with a population of more than one million, and 20 state capitals, could plug a crucial gap — most Indian cities have few or no air monitoring stations, which means policymakers and the public lack information about pollution levels.
Several studies have demonstrated the catastrophic effects of the unchecked rise in airborne particulate matter on public health, ranging from reduced life expectancy to irreversible lung damage in children. More people die of chronic respiratory diseases in India than anywhere else in the world. An air quality index — particularly if more monitoring stations are set up and collect better data — can be an effective tool for citizens to mobilise and put pressure on politicians to address the causes of air pollution and devise solutions.
More and better information can also help people take simple preventive steps, such as keeping schoolgoing children at home when the air quality is particularly bad, as happens in cities like Shanghai and Beijing. But measurement alone is not enough. Air pollution is a particularly difficult problem to address because its sources are numerous and it requires a coordinated policy response across sectors such as transport, industry and power.
As he launched the index, the PM noted that “some people feel environment and development are on opposite sides… This is wrong.” In its efforts to dispel the image of the environment ministry as a roadblock to growth, however, and by what has been seen as its haste in easing the approvals process for industry, the Modi government may also have been complicit in promoting this contrived opposition. The launch of the index is a good moment to start to reverse that perception. The Centre could channel the public concern sparked by the deteriorating air in Indian cities to institute simple yet market-friendly environmental reforms, such as incentivising factories and power plants to pollute less and penalising them if they do not comply. Better data on who pollutes how much would make that task easier.