Why In­dia stinks, and what’s to be done

The Weekend Australian - - WORLD -

In­dia stinks. If at this misty time of year its cap­i­tal, Delhi, smells as if some­thing is burn­ing, that is be­cause many things are: the car­cino­genic diesel that sup­plies three­quar­ters of the city’s mo­tor fuel, the dirty coal that sup­plies most of its power, the rice stalks that nearby farm­ers want to clear af­ter the har­vest, the rub­bish dumps that per­pet­u­ally smoul­der, the 400,000 trees that feed the city’s cre­ma­to­ria each year and so on.

All this com­bus­tion makes Delhi’s air the most nox­ious of any big city. It chokes on roughly twice as much pm 2.5, fine dust that pen­e­trates deep into lungs, as Bei­jing.

This does not just make life un­pleas­ant for In­di­ans. It kills them. Re­cent es­ti­mates put the death toll from breath­ing pm 2.5 alone at 1.2 mil­lion to 2.2 mil­lion a year. The lifes­pan of Delhi-dwellers is short­ened by more than 10 years, says the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago. Con­sump­tion of dirty water di­rectly causes 200,000 deaths a year, a gov­ern­ment think-tank reck­ons, without mea­sur­ing its con­tri­bu­tion to slower killers such as kid­ney dis­ease. Some 600 mil­lion In­di­ans, nearly half the coun­try, live in ar­eas where water is in short sup­ply. As pol­lu­tants taint ground­wa­ter, and global warm­ing makes the vi­tal mon­soon rains more er­ratic, In­dia is poi­son­ing its own fu­ture.

In­dian pol­lu­tion is a dan­ger to the rest of the world too.

Wide­spread dump­ing of an­tibi­otics in rivers has made the coun­try a hotspot for an­timi­cro­bial re­sis­tance.

Emis­sions of car­bon diox­ide, the most com­mon green­house gas, grew by 6 per cent a year be­tween 2000 and 2016, com­pared with 1.3 per cent a year for the world as a whole (and 3.2 per cent for China). In­dia now belches out as much as the whole of Africa and South Amer­ica com­bined.

In the past In­dia has ex­plained its fail­ure to clean up its act by plead­ing poverty, not­ing that richer coun­tries were once just as dirty and that its out­put of filth per per­son still lags far be­hind theirs. But In­dia is no­tably grubby not just in ab­so­lute terms, but also rel­a­tive to its level of de­vel­op­ment. And it is be­com­ing grub­bier. If elec­tric­ity de­mand dou­bles by 2030, as ex­pected, coal con­sump­tion will rise by 50 per cent.

It is true that some ways of cut­ting pol­lu­tion are ex­pen­sive. But there are also cheap so­lu­tions, such as un­do­ing mis­takes that In­dian bu­reau­crats have made.

By sub­si­dis­ing rice farm­ers, for in­stance, the gov­ern­ment has in ef­fect cheered on the guz­zling of ground­wa­ter and the torch­ing of stub­ble. Rules that en­cour­age the use of coal have not made In­dia more self-re­liant, as in­tended, but have led to big im­ports of for­eign coal while black­en­ing In­dia’s skies. Much cleaner gas-fired power plants, mean­while, sit idle.

Re­liant on big busi­ness for fund­ing and on the poor for votes, politi­cians ig­nore mid­dle-class com­plaints about pol­lu­tion and fail to give of­fi­cials the back­ing to en­force rules. That is a pity, be­cause when In­dia does ap­ply it­self to big goals, it of­ten achieves them. Next year it will send its se­cond rocket to the Moon.

Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi promised with ad­mirable frank­ness when he took over to rid In­dia of open defe­ca­tion; 4½ years and some $US9 bil­lion later, his Clean In­dia cam­paign claims to have spon­sored the build­ing of an as­ton­ish­ing 90 mil­lion toi­lets.

This is im­pres­sive, but In­dia is still not clean. Its skies, its streets, its rivers and coasts will re­main dan­ger­ously dirty un­til they re­ceive sim­i­lar at­ten­tion.

It is no­tably grubby in ab­so­lute terms and rel­a­tive to its level of de­vel­op­ment

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