Why India stinks, and what’s to be done
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