What to do?
This is the conclusion of a two-part series on air pollution in Delhi. Part 1, on inequality in exposure—on environmental injustice—is available here.
Public awareness of air pollution in Delhi lags behind that in China, where face masks are a common sight and the remarkable film “Under the Dome” received 100 million views within 48 hours when it was posted in March (before being banned by Chinese authorities). But this may be starting to change.
This spring, the Indian Express, one of the country’s leading newspapers, ran a searching multi-part investigative series on Delhi’s air pollution called “Death by Breath.” The Centre for Science and Environment, which successfully campaigned a decade ago for conversion of Delhi’s buses and auto-rickshaws to compressed natural gas, continues to raise public consciousness and advocate for policy remedies.
In the expatriate community, Delhi’s toxic air is viewed with rising alarm. In the past year, the U.S. embassy imported 1,800 top-of-the-line air purifiers for its personnel. “My business has just taken off,” the director of a local firm selling air filtration units told the New York Times. “It started in the diplomatic community, but it’s spread to the high-level Indian community, too.”
But such individual solutions – for the few who can afford them – can only go so far. Returning to the United States after three years as the New York Times Delhi correspondent, Gardiner Harris wrote that the city’s air pollution is “so frightening that some feel it is unethical for those who have a choice to willingly raise children here.” His own 8-year-old son suffered asthma attacks requiring emergency hospitalization. So many expatriates are leaving Delhi, he reports, that the American Embassy School is “facing a steep drop in admissions next fall.”
Indian government officials aspire to make Delhi a “world class city.” This goal is utterly incompatible with the city’s current air quality.
Because Delhi’s pollution has multiple causes, clearing the air will require multiple solutions. Important measures that could be undertaken immediately include expanded pollution monitoring with real-time reporting of the results; emergency health advisories and school closings when pollution exceeds dangerous thresholds; and the provision of particulate-grade masks to auto-rickshaw drivers, traffic policemen, and others who earn their livings on the streets, not only to protect them but also to build public awareness of the issue.
In the longer term, key measures in the transportation sector include cleaner fuel standards and a phase-out of diesel vehicles; completion of bypass roads, so trucks no longer pass through the city; the expansion of public transport, including state-of-the-art bus rapid transit systems plus pedestrian walkways and bicycle lanes for ‘last-mile connectivity’ between stops and final destinations; and a cap on numbers of private automobiles.
Other necessary measures include strict (and strictly enforced) controls on emissions from coal-fired power plants and brick kilns (and enforcement of the ban on burning old tires in the latter); a rapid build-out of clean, renewable electricity generation; and a ban on open burning of wastes, including the burning of plant debris and crop residues which effectively turns beneficial fertilizer into hazardous pollution.
These same measures would also reduce carbon dioxide emissions, helping to mitigate global climate change – a linkage that may help to unlock international finance for green infrastructure investments. The potential air quality co-benefits from curbing use of fossil fuels are substantial even in high-income countries with relatively clean air. In India, the public health co-benefits of a clean energy transition would be enormous.
Another possible source of finance would be revenues from capping the supply of automobile license plates and auctioning them to the highest bidder. In Singapore, which has been doing this since 1990, the current price of a license plate valid for 10 years is US$60,000. In an op-ed piece I recently co-authored with the environmental writer Aseem Shrivastava, we suggest a similar policy for Delhi with part of the auction revenue dedicated to green infrastructure, and part returned to the residents of Delhi as equal dividend payments, based on the principle that the limited amount of public space for private vehicles belongs in common measure to all the city’s residents.
Other major cities around the world have shown that clean air and economic development are not only compatible but can go together. These goals can be reconciled in Delhi, too, if and when its citizens demand it and its politicians respond.
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