The Reality Check You Should Share With Those Who Burst Crackers This Diwali

Pallavi Aiyar, the author of “Choked! Inside The World’s Most Polluted Cities” sits down to talk about the how, when and why’s of Delhi and pollution.

Can you tell us what frightens you the most about air pollution?

Pallavi Aiyar (PA): That it becomes normalised so easily. How what is, in fact, a horrific public health emergency can so easily become accepted as a non-modifiable fact of life. I have lived most of my life in the congested megalopolises of Delhi, Beijing and Jakarta. As I write in the book, vehicular fumes, smokestacks and burning leaves have been the predominant olfactory backdrop of my biography. But what is common to all the polluted Asian countries that I have lived in is the banality of the dirty air. It is often uncommented-upon, even unnoticed. Seen at most as an inconvenience that one must live with. But in fact, there is much that we can do both at an individual and policy level to clean up the air and make what should be a taken-for-granted necessity, breathing, safe. Unfortunately, in cities like Delhi, it is not safe.

When do cities like Delhi have to say enough?

PA: Delhi is at the peak of global pollution indexes. There are reports that one of every four children in the Indian capital suffers from a serious lung disorder, and hundreds of thousands of premature deaths in the country are linked to toxic air. One study found that fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) was linked to up to 16,200 premature deaths (and a staggering 6 million asthma attacks per year) in Delhi alone. You don’t even need all of these statistics. Just try stepping outside and breathing deeply on almost any day during the winter season and you will feel the burning in the throat. The time horizon for any concerted effort to battle air pollution is 15-20 years. Even if we start now it will take years for improvement to be felt.


What are the three key expert views that crystallised your view of pollution in Delhi?

PA: First of all, Deborah Seligsohn, who is a researcher on environmental governance at the University of California at San Diego, with a specific focus on China and India. She helped me realize that a single-minded focus on cars and vehicular pollution is far from enough to battle dirty air. We must look at industrial sources and power plants, but also steel and metal smelting, chemicals, refineries, cement, etc.  These industrial plants need to be equipped with pollution abatement technologies that are both available and effective. Because many of these plants are located outside of city limits, we do not link them to pollution as easily as we do vehicles.  However, instead of focusing on individual cities, the policy must take into account airsheds as a whole. Just as Beijing’s air only began to improve after measures to tackle pollution in neighbouring Tianjin and Hebei were also implemented, there will be no solution to Delhi’s dirty air without addressing pollution in the neighbouring states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

Speaking to Ashutosh Dixit, the head of URJA (United Residents Joint Action), an umbrella organization for resident welfare associations (RWA) in Delhi, was illuminating in a different way. He raised the point of how what is a difficult issue on a policy level is complicated by recalcitrant behaviour at the individual level. Even as people may complain about the bad air and (rightly) expect the government to take measures to tackle it, they are unwilling to modify their own polluting behaviours. Mr Dixit gave the example of how efforts to get residents to compost at the neighbourhood level, using fallen leaves from parks and kitchen waste, have failed because “people prefer not to think about ‘dirty’ things like koora (rubbish).” In fact, individual behavioural change is as necessary a part of the pollution-fighting puzzle, as are judicial activism and political diktats.

Last, but certainly not least, this book and indeed the entire environmental community in India owes a debt to the work of Dr Sarath Guttikunda, who began conducting empirical investigations into pollution, its sources and impact, years before it became a subject of general concern. Dr Guttikunda is the Director of the independent research group and much of the statistical information that underlies the arguments in my book comes from the meticulous studies undertaken by him.


Would you ever come back to live in Delhi?

PA: While researching the book, every public health expert I spoke to was of the opinion that one should not move to Delhi with young kids (children are more vulnerable than adults to the negative effects of air pollution) if it can be avoided. Unlike most people, I actually do have a choice about where I live. Would I ever come back to live in Delhi? The answer is definitely yes. Not because I want my kids to suffer, but because I have emotional and family bonds to the city that cannot be replaced. It would be a trade-off, but one that I am personally willing to make. That said, I would make the move knowing that I could leave again if things got really bad (my younger son has mild asthma). If moving back to Delhi was something that did not have an escape clause attached to it, I might think twice.

What did Beijing do that was right for its citizens?

PA: In the public imagination Beijing remains the ground zero of air pollution. But I argue that contrary to its reputation, China is the leader in the neighbourhood when it comes to cleaning up the skies.  The Olympic Games that Beijing hosted in 2008, had served as a wake-up call for China, something that Delhi’s 2010 Commonwealth Games did not do for India. It was in the run-up to the Games that Beijing’s air pollution went from being viewed as ‘fog’, to a burning political issue with consequences for the resilience of the ruling Communist party. In 2014, a WHO study found that Delhi’s PM 2.5 was close to three times the Beijing mean.

China has developed a network of 1,500 air quality-monitoring stations in over 900 cities. There is no other country in the developing world with this level of monitoring infrastructure. The comparison with India, which only has 39 such stations, covering 23 cities is revealing (as of Feb 2016). The share of thermal power plants with basic pollution abatement equipment in China is 95% compared to 10% in India. Again, there are promotion-related consequences for administrative officials like provincial governors in China, if they miss pollution-lowering targets, whereas there are no equivalent consequences in India. Unlike India, China has developed national, regional and city-level action plans with measurable 5-year targets. The regional action plans cover entire airsheds and address all major sources of pollution in an integrated manner.

When it comes specifically to Beijing and cars, given that vehicles have dominated the pollution debate in Delhi, hundreds of thousands of cars and trucks that do not meet pollution standards have been taken off the Chinese capital’s roads. Since 2009, polluting vehicles, identified by a yellow sticker, have been barred from entering the area that lies within the city’s fifth ring road. In 2011-2012, restrictions were placed on car ownership. Beijingers can only buy a new car if they do not already have a vehicle registered under their name. They are then eligible to enter a monthly lottery for 20,000 license plates. In 2013 Beijing cut the number of new license plates by 37% over 2012, to only 150,000.  The city plans to limit vehicle growth to 6 million by 2017.


Pallavi Aiyar’s Choked! Inside the World’s Most Polluted Cities is now available on the Juggernaut app here

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