Premature Death

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Wednesday 15 January 1997

at an exhibition on air pollution in India's metros organised by the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi, the Danish development journalist Knud Vilby asked a question: Why did Delhi have a heavier vehicular pollution load, when it had lesser population than either Bombay or Calcutta?

The answer lies in two things. One, having more foresight than Delhi, the cities of Bombay and Calcutta have developed mass rapid transit systems (mrts) which take care of a substantial portion of daily passenger trips. Delhi has, as yet, no such system; it goes without saying that India's capital is run by capitally stupid governments. The second factor which determines the pollution load in Delhi is its wealth. And this is a factor that needs serious thought.

All over the world, especially in Asia, as cities have started getting wealthy, they have, concurrently, started running into serious pollution problems. Growing wealth means greater consumption, which in turn means greater pollution. Delhi is the richest city in India in terms of per capita incomes. Bangalore - the pride of India's anti-environment Prime Minister, H D Deve Gowda - is also growing rapidly. And, not surprisingly, both Delhi and Bangalore are today immensely polluted and getting worse. With the advent of the Maruti Suzuki, car-ownership has reached the upper- and middle-income groups, while the lower middle-income group is reaching out for two-wheelers. A large portion of Delhi's citizens have enough money to buy the polluting two-wheelers if they cannot afford cars. What is happening in Delhi and Bangalore is bound to happen in every city of the country as the economy, hopefully, booms.

The East Asian experience shows clearly that when economies grow at or near 10 per cent per year, and when industry accounts for the bulk of that growth, pollution levels can rise fast in the absence of effective environmental policies. As an example, industrial pollution loads in several Southeast Asian countries (Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand) have been estimated by the World Bank (wb) for the period from 1975 to 1989 based on their industrial growth patterns and pollution-intensity coefficients derived in the us. The estimates show that while Thailand's gdp roughly doubled over this period, most pollutant loads increased at least 10-fold. In the case of Indonesia, a related exercise projected forward pollution loads to the year 2010 based on recent industrial growth patterns. For each of the 11 pollutants considered, the annual emissions in 2020 are projected to be at least 10 times greater than those in 1990, assuming no change in environmental policies or industrial practices.

A 1993 wb study found that Indonesia had to spend about us $500 million (Rs 1,750 crore) per annum (in 1990) to counter the health effects of pollution in Jakarta alone. When other considerations are taken into account - such as water treatment facilities needed to clean polluted water, downstream impacts on other economic activities, flushing of rivers and building of dikes to supply clean water - the current and potential costs of pollution to society will be quite mind-boggling.

Delhi and Bangalore are today in the eminent company of other Asian cities which have rapidly acquired wealth in recent decades. Bangkok is the most notorious for its pollution. But Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, Hong Kong, Shanghai and others have been or are still in a similar mess. This does not mean that pollution is inevitable. If growing wealth is the key cause of pollution, stupidity and indiscipline are the key factors that aggravate the situation.

One Asian city which has escaped becoming a living hell is Singapore. And it has done that through sheer discipline and foresight. Singapore has truly lived up to its Sanskrit meaning - the 'Lion City'. Singapore first became famous by allowing only odd- or even-number vehicles into the congested city centre on a specific day. Soon, only millionaires could afford to buy cars in the city. This was achieved by the government releasing only a limited number of permits every year to Singapore's citizens to buy cars and then auctioning these permits to the highest bidder. The price of buying a car in a rich city like Singapore, thus, took a quantum leap - a kind of polluter pays and pays heavily principle. And it restricted the total vehicular population in the city. Following this, Singapore took another step. In order to stop polluting vehicles coming in from neighbouring countries, it forced people to park their cars at the international border and use the city's public transport system.

This was the discipline that the city introduced in its transport management, which became possible because it had the foresight to invest in and develop an excellent public transport system. Thus, it became easier to insist on disciplined behaviour by citizens, who complied with the directives. In Delhi or Bangalore, in the absence of an mrts, it becomes impossible to demand disciplined behaviour and get compliance.

With the passage of time, India's rural environmental problems as well as its urban-industrial troubles have magnified. If the government cannot deliver, then the civil society must get together and fight. Join a non-governmental organisation or set up one of your own and demand your right to clean air and water. And tell the politicians that before pollution leads to your 'premature death' - as medical specialists put it - you will ensure the premature deaths of the political careers of your elected representatives.

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