US Govt. Acts Up, While Modi Govt. Chokes On Urban Air Pollution

Posted on February 24, 2015 in Environment, Politics

By Anjali Nambissan

Yeah, yeah we’ve all read about it now. Everybody is talking about how high the particulate matter in Delhi’s air is. How everyone is choking on PM 2.5 that is 15 times over the World Health Organisation-stipulated standard for ‘safe to breathe’ air. Western universities are churning out study after study about how our lives are shortening at an alarming pace because of urban air pollution, terming it ‘a truly massive public health concern for India’. The Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has sprung into action demanding plans and policy from the Delhi government. The High Court has issued notices to everyone administratively involved to clear the air, pun intended. It is one big, national and international, media brouhaha out here. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not denying the New York Times’ claim that Delhi is the most polluted city in the world or the WHO report that says that India has 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world.

Picture Credit: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier
Picture Credit: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier

But do you know why I am not shocked, or surprised?

  1. Because this time last year, Delhi had already surpassed Beijing not only with worse air quality, but also with doing as little as possible about it. New Delhi’s Centre for Science and Environment studied years of data to find that Delhi fared worse than Beijing if the playing field was levelled by applying air quality classification and health alert system of Beijing or that of the US to our capital. And while the Chinese government swung into action restricting vehicular congestion, regulating industrial units and improving public health safety awareness, we choked on the air. Now, suddenly after a whole year, we are screaming through the smog.
  2. I travel around Delhi in either the metro or an auto. Driving in the city makes me want to cry. Delhi’s streets now have 135.59 % more cars than it did some five years ago. The number of cars in the capital went up to reach 53 lakhs in 2011-12. As of February 2015, 85,87,525 private vehicles have been registered with the transport department of Delhi. Add choked roads that are badly planned to this carbon-fumes concoction, and you have yourself some respiratory diseases.

And do you know what I do find shocking?

The United States government, last week, announced plans to monitor and report on the urban air pollution in embassies around the world. I don’t know if Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal or, for that matter, even Prime Minister Narendra Modi have heard, but the American embassy in Delhi will be one of the first cities to see US interference… I mean… assistance. At a ceremonial launch last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced the expansion of the Environment Protection Agency’s AirNow pollution programme to monitor air quality at US embassies around the world and report on their findings.

“In the coming months, AirNow will begin to operate in India. And shortly after that, it will expand to Vietnam, to Mongolia, and other countries. And as it expands to more and more posts around the world in different countries, this effort is going to provide Foreign Service officers, military men and women, and U.S. citizens living or just visiting abroad with better information about the air that they are breathing, so that they can make healthier choices and hopefully mitigate some of the harmful impacts that I mentioned,” he remarked at a signing ceremony with the EPA. I’m just thinking out loud here but shouldn’t an Indian government representative have been present too? Or informed on the phone or something?

In the same breath, John Kerry also talks about how this is important for increasing international cooperation to end pollution because “the pollution that goes up in one country, even if it’s halfway around the world, comes to us at some point in time. And in many ways, it falls to the Earth or to the water in the form of acidified rain or other qualities that are damaging and dangerous to our agriculture and our aquatic systems.” It is funny he should say that, because that’s exactly what India and other developing countries have been saying at climate talks for ten years, trying to get the United States to take on more responsibility for the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere which is causing problems for all of us.

Soft power tactics

Does it not all work out for the US – after taking China under their wing and clearing India out of the way ahead of the Paris climate talks, where US will face some international pressure to act? So, is PM Modi going to give up on doing anything about urban air pollution in India, now that his good friends, the US government, have stepped in? Where’s all that righteous indignation the Union Home Ministry felt when a certain activist was to approach a certain foreign parliament about the plight of certain tribal folk in India?