Even by the standards of poor countries, India is alarmingly filthy

For its own sake, and the world’s, it needs to clean up

India Shrinks. If at this misty time of year its capital, Delhi, smells as if something is burning, that is because many things are: the carcinogenic diesel that supplies three-quarters of the city’s motor fuel, the dirty coal that supplies most of its power, the rice stalks that nearby farmers want to clear after the harvest, the rubbish dumps that perpetually smoulder, the 400,000 trees that feed the city’s crematoria each year and so on. All this combustion makes Delhi’s air the most noxious of any big city. It chokes on roughly twice as much pm 2.5, fine dust that penetrates deep into lungs, as Beijing.

Delhi’s deadly air is part of a wider crisis. Seventy percent of surface water is tainted. In the World Health Organisation’s rankings of air pollution, Indian cities claim 14 of the top 15 spots. In an index of countries’ environmental health from Yale and Columbia universities, India ranks a dismal 177th out of 180.

This does not just make life unpleasant for a lot of Indians. It kills them. Recent estimates put the annual death toll from breathing pm 2.5 alone at 1.2m-2.2m a year. The lifespan of Delhi-dwellers is shortened by more than ten years, says the University of Chicago. Consumption of dirty water directly causes 200,000 deaths a year, a government think-tank reckons, without measuring its contribution to slower killers such as kidney disease. Some 600m Indians, nearly half the country, live in areas where water is in short supply. As pollutants taint groundwater, and global warming makes the vital monsoon rains more erratic, the country is poisoning its own future.

Indian pollution is a danger to the rest of the world, too. Widespread dumping of antibiotics in rivers has made the country a hotspot for anti-microbial resistance. Emissions of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, grew by 6% a year between 2000 and 2016, compared with 1.3% a year for the world as a whole (and 3.2% for China). India now belches out as much as the whole of Africa and South America combined.

In the past India has explained its failure to clean up its act by pleading poverty, noting that richer countries were once just as dirty and that its output of filth per person still lags far behind theirs. But India is notably grubby not just in absolute terms, but also relative to its level of development. And it is becoming grubbier. If electricity demand doubles by 2030, as expected, coal consumption stands to rise by 50%.

It is true that some ways of cutting pollution are expensive. But there are also cheap solutions, such as undoing mistakes that Indian bureaucrats have themselves made. By subsidising rice farmers, for instance, the government has in effect cheered on the guzzling of groundwater and the torching of stubble. Rules that encourage the use of coal have not made India more self-reliant, as intended, but instead have led to big imports of foreign coal while blackening India’s skies. Much cleaner gas-fired power plants, meanwhile, sit idle.

Reliant on big business for funding and on the poor for votes, politicians have long ignored middle-class complaints about pollution, failing to give officials the backing to enforce rules, or to co-ordinate across jurisdictions. That is a pity, because when India does apply itself to ambitious goals, it often achieves them. Next year it will send its second rocket to the Moon.

Narendra Modi, the prime minister, promised with admirable frankness when he took over to rid the country of open defecation. Four and a half years and some $9bn later, his Clean India campaign claims to have sponsored the building of an astonishing 90m toilets. This is impressive, but India is still not clean. Its skies, its streets, its rivers and coasts will remain dangerously dirty until they receive similar attention.

Source: Economic Times

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