When will India be able to control pollution ?

Not till the middle of the 21st century. So be prepared to leave your children behind in a living hell. Unless you are prepared to browbeat your politicians into action

Published: Saturday 15 April 2000

When will India be able to control pollution ?

Only plugging the loopholes in (Credit: SARVESH / CSE)

Anil Agarwal

Many journalists have been asking the question: What will India's environment look like in the 21st century? Since India is already one of the most polluted countries in the world, an important question is: Will India ever be able to control pollution and, if so, when?

Most of the Indian rivers, especially the smaller ones, are today toxic drains: Sabarmati, Bhadar, Yamuna, Damodar, Chaliyar, Betwa, Noyyal, Bhawani, to name just a few. Groundwater, a major source of drinking water, is also becoming polluted and most of it is drunk without any treatment. But lets talk in some detail about air pollution.

Air pollution in Indian cities is also growing by leaps and bounds. The Central Pollution Control Board (cpcb) has just released the air quality data for 1997 for 70 cities and what does it show? That Shillong is the only town in India where the air quality in terms of suspended particulates -- the most threatening air pollutant in Indian cities was clean round the year and there was no single day either when the air became even moderately polluted.

In all the other 69 cities, the air quality was moderately, highly or critically polluted terms used and defined by the cpcb -- round the year. In some, the air was moderately poor round the year but reached high or critical levels of pollution during certain days in the year. In 33 cities, that is, in about half of all the cities monitored, the air was critically polluted round the year and they had days when the air quality was nothing short of disastrous (see table: Air Quality in Indian cities in 1997). Another 40 per cent of the cities had high or moderate levels of pollution round the year but had certain days when the pollution reached critical levels.

It is often said that Delhi is one of the most polluted cities in the world. And by implication, people tend to believe that it is the most polluted city in India. But this is not true. While it is indeed one of the most polluted cities in the world the World Health Organisation monitors the air quality in about 20 cities of the world and Delhi indeed figures high on that list Delhi is not one of the most polluted cities in India, according to the data collected by the Central Pollution Control Board. In 1997, the annual average concentration of total suspended particulate matter in Delhi was 339.3 microgrammes per cubic metre (g/cum) in other words, Delhi's air was critically polluted round the year. But Surat, Patna, Jharia, Faridabad, Kanpur, Agra and Ankleshwar had still higher levels of particulate pollution than Delhi round the year ranging from 384 g/cum to 412 g/cum.

We find the same situation when we compare pollution on the worst day of the year. In Delhi, the peak pollution reached 1,055 g/cum in 1997. In other words, on that particular day, Delhi's pollution was nothing short of disastrous. But Kochi reached an astonishing 2,506 g/cum on the most polluted day, Lucknow 2,339 g/cum, Kanpur 1,385 g/cum, Chandigarh 1,254 g/cum, Alwar 1,237 g/cum, Patna 1,229, Agra 1,222 g/cum and Ankleshwar 1,198 g/cum. Udaipur and Mumbai were close behind Delhi with peak concentrations of 1,025 g/cum and 1,019 g/cum, respectively.

In short, the picture of air pollution is nothing short of horrendous. Moreover, this pollution is widespread and growing. And this is the picture when the quality of pollution monitoring is extremely poor.

Firstly, there are cities like Varanasi and Srinagar whose air quality is not even monitored. Not only is pollution in Srinagar high, there are reports that is getting high even in Agartala, to name just a few such towns.

Secondly, even in cities where air quality is monitored, the number of monitoring stations is very small. Delhi today has only about ten pollution monitoring stations whereas it should have some 60-100 stations. The average of a such a large number of stations could be much higher than what is given today.

Thirdly, a large number of critical pollutants are not even being monitored. What pollution control boards monitor in the name of suspended particulates is Total Suspended Particulate Matter which hardly any industrialised country in the world monitors today. This is because particles which are bigger than 10 microns that is, one-millionth of a metre -- in diameter do not penetrate the respiratory system much. Over a decade ago most industrialised countries had switched to measuring only pm10 that is, particles of or less than 10 microns. There is only one station in India in Delhi where pm10 monitoring began in 1998. India is way behind and will be so even in the future. Now most advanced countries are moving to measuring pm2.5 because particles of this size are far worse than pm10. Because of the preponderance of 2-stroke scooters on India's roads, another major pollutant in India's urban air is benzene a potent cancer-causing agent like particles. This too is not monitored in India.

The limited monitoring that has been done in Delhi shows extraordinary results. pm10 levels in Delhi reached an astonishing 820 g/cum--eight times above the specified standard and possibly way beyond anything recorded in any other city in the world. pm10 levels were far worse than the levels of Total Suspended Particulate Matter in Delhi when the two were compared with their specific standards. The few studies done on benzene levels in Delhi show that this cancer-causing pollutant reaches even more disastrous levels well over a thousand times the standard.

And what is incredible is that neither the Central government nor any of the state governments have as of yet cared to formulate a plan to control this pollution and bring it to acceptable levels. If anything is happening piecemeal or whatever it is because of the Supreme Court or the High Courts.

So what are we to do with this pollution?

Power plants, industries and vehicles are the biggest sources of pollution. The rate with which vehicular pollution is growing is absolutely astonishing. The Centre for Science and Environment has found that between 1975 and 1995 a period during which the country's economy (gross domestic product or gdp) grew by about 2.5 times the vehicular pollution load grew by eight times. And since India is just in the nascent stages of industrialisation, power generation, motorisation and urbanisation, we can be certain that pollution will grow by leaps and bounds unless major efforts are made to control it. That is, unless we very carefully take an environment-friendly path for industrialisation, power generation, motorisation and urbanisation.

The question, therefore, is: Will we? It is always hard to predict the future but if we look at past trends the simple answer is: Not for a very long time. Let us see what history teaches us. Pollution grew very rapidly in the Western countries soon after the economic boom that followed the Second World War a period during which the West created enormous economic wealth. By the late 1950s, the air and water was extremely polluted. The Thames and the Rhine had become sewers. Japan was suffering from an unknown but horrifying neurological disorder called the Minamata Disease. It was impossible to breathe in Tokyo, London or Los Angeles. This led to a powerful environmental movement in the 1960s and which gained force during the 1970s.

With environment also becoming an electoral issue, governments began to respond. During the 1970s and 1980s, Western governments did two things. Firstly, they enacted strong laws and enforced them with great discipline and, thus, secondly ensured a substantial amount of industrial investment in pollution control. As a result of all these efforts, by the mid-1980s the Thames was once again beginning to breathe and so were the waters of the Stockholm archipelago. And urban air was also reasonably clean. It thus took nearly 20 years or one generation from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s to bring about the change. And the battle is still far from won. Western industries still produce enormous toxic wastes, carbon dioxide emitted by their power plants, industries and vehicles is threatening to destabilise the world's climate.

In India, we are at the same situation that the West was in the 1960s. The question is: Will we be able to replicate what the West did in one generation? Will India's rivers and cities begin to breathe by the 2020s? The answer is: Very Unlikely. For three key reasons which markedly differentiate us from the West.

lOne, pollution control has yet to become an electoral issue in India. India's politicians have just not shown any serious interest in controlling pollution. They have no courage to take on the big polluters the corporate sector, which too has shown a singular lack of interest in controlling pollution. The government's own companies and power stations are heavy polluters. And politicians do not want to take on the small polluters either the small-scale units or the small taxidrivers/three-wheeler drivers because they constitute important vote banks. Therefore, India's electoral democracy is proving to be very weak to confront the scourge of pollution. As a result, India's pollution control laws are not even worth the piece of paper on which they have been promulgated. And it is unlikely that this situation will change in the near future.

lTwo, pollution control requires enormous discipline and effective regulation. Given the state of political and bureaucratic corruption, again it is extremely unlikely that pollution control laws will be enforced with any level of effectiveness.

lThree, pollution control will require heavy investment and given the fact that India's per capita income even today is far less than what the Western countries had achieved in the 1950s, it is hard to see this investment being made. Unless, of course, the government carefully searches for cost-effective measures. Takes the usually cheaper precautionary measures than the extremely expensive curative measures. And insists that the companies big or small have to meet certain minimum standards or face severe penalties. But neither do our politicians nor do our bureaucrats have any idea of how to do this. The pollution control bureaucracy is today one of the most pathetically incompetent bureaucracies in the country -- and nor does the government want to do anything the polluter-politician-bureaucrat nexus being extremely strong.

What then does this mean? It simply means that India will not be able to clean pollution in one generation. If it takes at least 2 generations, we will begin to see leaner air only by the 2040s. In other words, the current urban generation is going to leave behind a totally unlivable habitat for at least two of its generations. The future is, therefore, nothing less than scary.

One may ask how can generations pass by without any effective action being taken. That this can happen in the future is clearly shown by the past. It was in 1981 that the Air Pollution Control Act was legislated. Nearly 20 years, that is, one generation has already gone by without the Central or any of the state governments having even developed an effective action plan which clearly aims to bring down pollution to levels that will give us clean air. Both the Central and state governments have only promoted cosmetic exercises like checking the tailpipes of private motor cars or scooters a technique that only puts the blame on the victim. Even Andhra Pradesh's chief minister Chandrababu Naidu had his picture proudly taken while checking the exhaust pipe of a car.

What does this pollution mean in terms of economic growth? Will India's economy be affected by this pollution? The unfortunate answer is: No.

Politicians and industrialists do not have to learn any real lesson. Things can go on as usual without any of these groups suffering. As classical economic texts point out, pollution will even help the economy to grow. Bottling water industry will grow by leaps and bounds. So will hospitals and medicine producers and vendors. Yes, certain costs will definitely go up. Drinking water costs, for example. The rich are already paying for bottled drinking water as much as they pay for milk. But, to meet the needs of the poor, the government will have to invest heavily to treat the polluted waters to turn them into drinking water quality and if, however, the government fails to do so because of lack of money or political will, as it is already doing so then it is the poor who will have to pay the biggest price--the price being their very lives.

Air pollution will be the biggest leveller because it will affect both the rich and the poor. But the rich will be able to afford the cost of dealing with chronic asthma and cancer whereas the poor will not be able to do so. In other words, India's wealth will be built on the backs of its poor, its elderly, its children and those genetically susceptible. Not on the back of the economy but on the back of public health.

What does this mean in terms of numbers? How many will die? Today, about a million die each year because of water pollution and this is still largely because of the traditional form of pollution which results from human filth. The new water pollution will add to this all kind of horrendous diseases like cancers and neurological disorders. It is estimated that at least one lakh die each year from urban air pollution. Thus, at the least one million or more will continue to die from pollution each year in India. This figure will rise to probably 2-3 million a year with growing pollution. But tens of millions will suffer from high rates of illness and a very poor quality of life.

If we were to take one generation to control pollution, we would have killed off at least 20-30 million people, mostly poor people. And if we were to take two generations, the numbers could rise to 40-60 million people.

The problem is that these numbers are so small that for India's politicians and industrialists they mean absolutely nothing. What do 50 million deaths or murders mean in a country which is already 1,000 million and likely to grow to 1,500 million soon? Economic growth will come at a high price only for those who suffer from the pollution. Probably 50 million poor people have already been killed off in the last 50 years of Independence because of the inaction on the part of our political system to deal with India's poverty. Independence has definitely come to us at a high cost but it has made no material difference to the politicians of the country.

Surely all this is deeply immoral. But who is going to protest against this immorality?

That is where, in fact, the answer lies. If anything is going to change, it will not come from the electoral part of India's democracy. It will come from those elements of Indian democracy which give its people certain rights the Right to Free Speech, the Right to form Associations, and the Right to Protest, especially the Right to go to Court. In other words, exactly as in the West, it is India's civil society which will have to literally browbeat the country's elected representatives into action. In fact, the fight against pollution will only succeed only if it becomes a people's movement an urban people's movement which can count on an active group against pollution in every town and city of India working together as one force.

But this will not be an easy task. People will be given all kinds of confusing information. By the government most of all and by the industry as well. Critical information will be held back by government officials and scientists. There will be few scientists ready to speak out. Despite the high levels of particulates in India's urban air, the Centre for Science and Environment has not been able to find one single scientist in the country who has studied the health effects of this pollutant. In such a situation, every attempt will be made to divert attention to inconsequential issues. And, to boot, fighting pollution is an intensely scientific task. Unless the civil society itself acquires scientific expertise or finds willing scientists to work with it, and then finds willing judges to tame the politicians and the bureaucrats, getting the balance between environment and development will prove to be an elusive task.

I am convinced that it is not going to be an India that anyone of us dreamed of. Poor. Polluted. And politically sick. Welcome to the 21st century! n

This article appeared in The Hindu on January 23, 2000

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.