When wealth is not health

India's economic growth has come at a terrible price. In two decades, while the GDP more than doubled, vehicular pollution increased eight times over and industrial pollution by four times. But policy makers have consistently underscored the cost of death and disease due to environmental degeneration. The country is only now learning that wealth that comes at the cost of health is hollow. An extensive and exclusive study on the rise in pollution load, conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment, assesses the ugly side of economic growth

Published: Sunday 31 January 1999

When wealth is not health

-- They no longer say they are "living in Delhi". Thousands of Delhi residents who have to breathe its unhealthy air prefer to say that they are "dying in Delhi". The fear is for real. The capital's tree-lined avenues, grand colonial buildings, historical monuments are all submerged in the smog of anger and helplessness.

"I am sick of it, but I don't have a choice. Every day I go back home with a cough. Something needs to be done about it," says H R Kidwai, director, Jamia Milia Mass Communication Research Centre. Praveen Malhotra, a career counsellor, feels no different: "After the pollution in Delhi, I think we can even survive a Holocaust. And the worst affected are the children." Children or adults, rich or poor, such doomsday scenarios are playing on the minds of thousands of Delhi's denizens today.

According to a recent poll conducted by mt-imrb , in five metros - Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore and Calcutta - a sizeable portion of the 2,040 respondents said they would like to move out of the city. Delhi and Mumbai topped the list: 41 per cent and 37 per cent of the respondents wished to settle elsewhere. Of those Delhites who wanted to move out, 38 per cent said the reason was "quality of life", while 50 per cent said it was for health concerns.

The Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment ( cse ) conducted an extensive study, the first of its kind in the country, to estimate the rise in pollution load from the industrial and transport sectors in the entire country. The results, ghastlier than expected, reveal that the rate of pollution has far overshot economic growth. It is true that the country's Gross Domestic Product ( gdp ) has gone up by 2.5 times between 1975 and 1995, but at what cost? Vehicular pollution has escalated by a shocking eight times and, in the same period, industrial pollution has quadrupled (see graph: Wither wealth? ).

The cse figures could only be underestimating the country's plight. The study covered only two aspects of pollution: vehicular and industrial. It does not take into account pollution from thermal power plants and agriculture, or that from households, especially urban. If it did, the cse estimates would have been higher.

The purchasing power may have increased but so have the health hazards. Now, the adage, "Health is Wealth", lies buried in the smog that engulfs the entire country. Diseases and deaths: the words say it all. Citizens are dying of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases much before they are able to enjoy their accumulated wealth.

Clearly, vehicles are the biggest culprits. According to the cse study, in 1995 the pollution load from vehicles in India was 5.789 million metric tonnes, compared to industries' share of 1.996 million metric tonnes. Of the country's vehicular pollution load, Delhi accounts for almost 10 per cent. The number of registered vehicles in 1995 in India was 30,287,000, of which 2,575,731 were registered in Delhi.

As for the contribution made by industries, even "liberalisation" did not quite help India. It was in the late 1980s and early 1990s that the Indian economy opened up in the name of liberalisation. A greater share of the investments came to the electronic and software sectors, which are considered less-polluting. The traditional, more polluting industries went down further in the scale of priority. These industries were already suffering from a chronic lack of funds and obsolete technology. And with no finances available to invest in pollution control technology, they continued to pollute all the more.

Another indicator of the country's economic state, besides industrialisation, is urbanisation. But growth in urbanisation has also come as a bane. During the two decades under study, many small towns have emerged as industrial centres sans any parallel growth in civic amenities and pollution control mechanisms ( Down to Earth , Vol 7, No 13). Take, for instance, the dyeing industry in Tiruppur, Tamil Nadu. Here, the rivers too have been dyed, groundwater contaminated and vast stretches of agricultural land ruined. The lesson, which is still not learnt, is that industrialisation and urbanisation have only made life more miserable in a small town as well as a bustling metropolis.

India, however, has not seen a concerted government effort to understand the severity of the problem. The industries are minting money while the government is busy addressing more "pertinent" issues. All along, a majority of Indians continue to die a slow death.

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