Dr. Shashi Tharoor
Member of Parliament (Lok Sabha), Thiruvananthapuram
Chairman, External Affairs Committee of Parliament
Roundtable Consultation on Formulating a National Action Plan on Air Quality
Convened by Dr. Shashi Tharoor
Venue: India International Centre; Committee Room 1 (Annexe)
Format:Closed Door Roundtable
Time:4pm to 7pm
“If you rubbed your skin after a short walk your fingers were left coated with sooty black smudges an indication of what you had also breathed in. During a shower, black water ran off your body. By one estimate, Delhi smog was killing 10,500 people a year by 2015; others put the figure closer to 50,000. Studies of the air suggested that 200 tons of arsenic, black carbon, formaldehyde, nickel, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide were falling on Delhi everyday. That fug triggered heart and asthma attacks, including among the young and apparently healthy; tiny particulates caused cancer in lungs. Winter brought the sootiest air, milky yellow light at noon, a carpet of grit and dust that settled on everything. Even in cabinet minister’s offices, grand government rooms with high ceilings, the smog was visible indoors. Flying over north India- or Pakistan and Bangladesh- in winter, I noticed that the entire territory was trapped under a blanket of brown, wet air, the product of cooking fires, stubble burnt in fields, brick kilns, factories, coal powered plants, and millions of vehicles. Winter inversions meant a lid of cold air that pressed the blanket low and unmoving”. – Adam Roberts, ‘Superfast Primetime Ultimate Nation: The Relentless Invention of India’
The problem of deteriorating air quality remains confined to an urban discussion. While select regions particularly New Delhi and the surrounding NCR region, as well as other cities such as Mumbai and Bangalore, have seen increasing public awareness, advocacy and commitment from local state governments to address the issue, there is an abject failure to recognise that this is a pan-Indian concern, posing serious question to the health of the nation as a whole.
The 2017 State of Global Air report published by the Health Effects Institute revealed that since 1990, the absolute number of ozone related deaths in India has risen by a staggering 150 percent, unlike in other regions such as China and the US where the corresponding numbers have remained relatively stable. Even in terms of number of deaths per 100,000 population, India registers 14.7, more than twice the rate of 5.9 present currently in China. Further studies have estimated that in 2012, India witnessed an estimated 515,000 to 750,000 cases of premature deaths from outdoor pollution and another 950,000 to 1,500,000 deaths from indoor pollution alone.
The economic implications of deteriorating air quality are equally ominous as well. A 2013 World Bank study estimated that welfare costs and lost labour income due to air pollution amounted to a staggering 8.5% of India’s GDP. Labour losses due to air pollution (man days lost etc) resulted in a loss of USD 55.39 billion, also higher than China’s USD 44.57 billions losses. Further, premature deaths cost the country USD 505 billion or roughly 7.6% of the country’s GDP.
Despite these indicators of the magnitude of an exacerbating issue the country is facing, toxic air quality continues to be ignored within the public domain. The lack of public concern on this issue is compounded by the fact that official data monitoring systems remain out of date and do not produce effective real time data, graded response mechanisms are absent and implementation of official plans to tackle the issue are either slow or they do not keep up with pace of India’s development story.
While India has officially shown considerable commitment and willingness to address these issues in the past- as the previous National Action Plan on Climate Change, 2008 as well as in international forums such as the Copenhagen Agreement and more recently, with the Paris Agreement, to tackle these pressing concerns, the pace of action on protecting and cleaning the environment is too slow.
But it is a problem that can still be addressed, if the right kind of public awareness and government intervention is generated. When at the peak of toxicity in its air, China formulated a National Air Pollution Action Plan, which imposed stringent controls on emissions and strict guidelines for air quality checks. China’s air strategy since, albeit still in an incipient stage, has shown promising potential, and a valuable lesson that the fight for improved air quality is not a lost cause.