A matter of perception

The nature of the World Bank interest in air pollution in India

Published: Friday 15 October 2004

-- WHAT constitutes authentic action on air pollution in India? If the World Bank is to be believed, it is a supine combination of objective data analysis and subjective anthropological speculation. The bank has prepared a study, yet to be released, that analyses ambient air quality in key Indian cities: air quality has actually improved in major Indian cities from 1993 to 2002. It has also conducted a survey in Indian cities among people whose work is related to air pollution, to "get a broad-brush picture of the perceptions and understandings of informed observers of urban air pollution in India": more than 90 per cent of the respondents said air pollution is serious or moderately serious (see Feeling foul).

Effectively, the outcome of such an approach is confusion. Whereas it is clear that air pollution in India hasn't improved, bank data-crunching and perception-hunting present a picture that's both good and bad. The bank acknowledges the lack of credible data related to this problem. Yet, it presents opinions as facts. The worst thing about the resultant confusion is that nothing is said about ways of tackling the problem. How can hard recommendations be made when the bank is ever-ready to vacillate? Consider what it says in a March 2004 study that looked at the sources of fine particulate matter in ambient air in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata: "there is no single dominant source" of the fine particles. They "differ by location and season". Ergo: what's to be done?

Imagine a person affected by a disease due to poor air quality. How would that person feel if the physician s/he goes to launches into an extended homily on the manifold complexities of the causation of the aforesaid illness? Managing air pollution involves political and business interests. By attempting a study and then genuflecting in a void, the bank only provides ammunition to those who like to profit at the cost of public health. If the bank were more serious, it could have zeroed in on certain quantifiable sources of air pollution and suggested measures to control pollution from these sources.

Take the case of dieselisation. Most automakers have pegged future plans on diesel models. Recently, India's biggest automaker, which has virtually no stake in the diesel vehicle market, announced the setting up of a diesel engine plant. Obviously, if the auto industry sees quick profits in diesel models, it will move in that direction. It needs to be stopped, in the interest of public health. But the bank's report suggests, innocuously, that "focusing on diesel vehicles should be given priority". How about the World Bank giving greater priority to the implications -- political and commercial -- of its reports on air pollution in Indian cities?

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