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It’s time to clear the air

It’s time to clear the air

Sudhirendar Sharma
Over years, an ecosystem of ignorance and denial has transformed air pollution from a meek cat into an assertive tiger.

Sudhirendar Sharma

In a country where corruption continues to coexist with progress, indifference to pollution as a fatal fallout of development is bound to remain at the periphery of any meaningful social discourse. Four decades since the enactment of the legislative provision to control and prevent air pollution, and an estimated million people being consumed annually by air pollution, there are not many who yet acknowledge it as a serious scourge in India. And why would they when the government has continued to deny any direct correlation of death exclusively due to air pollution. Over years, an ecosystem of ignorance and denial has transformed air pollution from a meek cat into an assertive tiger.
Dean Spears confronts this tiger head-on in his socio-anthropological analysis of air pollution as it registers its presence from sprawling urban jungles to degrading rural landscapes to conclude that India’s air pollution is not one problem, but a multi-layered manifestation of governance and market failure. Since air pollution does not respect the rural-urban divide, it poses formidable public policy challenge to fix it. Impact of stubble burning in rural fields on ambient air quality across urban centres has clearly shown that one cannot buy one’s own private escape. It is a collective problem that needs a policy directive on structural reforms to address it.
It is no denying that air pollution comes from several sources, many of which are non-descript in an informal economy, and keeping a tab on its nature and extent is as challenging as designing incentives to put a cap on it. In the absence of credible data, the book takes the health route to correlate and raise concerns about air pollution. Through carefully curated data, Spears provides evidence on how exposure to air pollution not only results in babies born with low height but shockingly hold a positive correlation with infant mortality rates across the country. Such a piece of statistics points to the grim reality, leaving many wondering if buying homemade filter systems can provide the great escape from worsening air pollution. It should be more than clear therefore that the polluter can hardly keep a safe distance from the impact of pollution, and hence should play a proactive role in nipping the evil in the bud.
Air, with its long title, provides a nuanced understanding on air pollution and the country’s deep vulnerability to it in future climate change. Since the policymakers have not invested in monitoring pollution and neither have experts developed tools to curb it, the book is directed at those enlightened voters who are concerned about the health of the society. In a country where life expectancy has caught up with rest of the developed world, there is no reason for it to remain home to one-quarter of the world’s neonatal deaths. More than a development challenge, there are clear social and economic reasons to fight air pollution.
Without doubt, the state has an obligation towards its people. There is no other political choice. If a not-so-free electoral democracy in China can cut down its particle pollution in Beijing as a popular step towards remaining in charge, India has seemingly better democratic credentials to tackle pollution both in urban and rural areas. Spears wonders if the government will pursue a carrot and stick policy of right incentives and punitive punishment to run concurrent in inculcating a responsive behavior among municipal managers and law enforcers. Isn’t it time that a free democracy like India enhance its institutional capacities to serve its vulnerable public?
It is a handy and easy-to-read book on getting a social science perspective on the political-economy of development (read pollution). It doesn’t tell which boiler can reduce pollution from a coal-based power plant but stays firm that coal is not the energy future for the country. It adds more dangerous particles in the air than any other source. Cutting down on coal as a source of energy offers double-win solution: the co-benefits of reducing air pollution add up to reducing carbon emissions. For a country that is somewhat limited in its resolve and capacity to curb pollution, this is a case that should merit serious attention. The book leaves the reader with a set of open-ended recommendations to deliberate on further.
Having been living in India for a while, Spears is privy to socio-cultural aspects of both rural and urban life which lends desired credence to his writings. Politics is a difficult way to improve policies, the book asserts, but independent citizens can contribute to democratic accountability by influencing politics. Air pollution is too important an issue not to be tracked by informed citizens to influence the state to act.
Air: Pollution, Climate Change and India’s Choice between Policy and Pretence
by Dean Spears
HarperCollins, New Delhi
Extent: 258, Price: Rs 250.
First published in Hindustan Times, issue dated Sept 7, 2019.