The Price of India’s Economic Development

Smog season has begun across South Asia. Over the past few weeks, a thick layer of microscopic particles from car exhausts, coal stacks, burning fields and garbage settled over much of northern India; another hovered above Lahore, Pakistan. In recent years the phenomenon has become as routine a feature of the seasonal cycle as the cold-weather conditions that exacerbate it. And though rain has dispelled the latest spike in pollution, more sharp increases are sure to follow before the winter ends.

A Cloud Hangs Over Innovation

Since the Industrial Revolution and the advent of the combustion engine, air quality has degraded around the globe. By the mid-20th century, the United States and the United Kingdom had begun to struggle with the negative consequences of pollution. Disaster struck in Donora, Pennsylvania, in 1948 and in London in 1952 when blankets of smog choked the cities, spurring the two industrial powerhouses to enact clean air regulations over the next two decades. At the same time, the decline of industrial activity and the rise of alternative technologies in both countries reduced the amount of pollution in each region. Even so, smog continues to hang heavy in parts of the United States and the United Kingdom from time to time.

Perhaps no country, however, has suffered more in recent history from suffocating levels of smog than China. For several decades, the industrial cities on China’s eastern coast — particularly in the north — have grappled with the damaging environmental effects of rapid economic growth, the rising home heating needs of an expanding population, and weather patterns that trap pollution in the atmosphere. Though the issue garnered more international attention when Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008, economic priorities at the local and provincial levels continued to trump lax environmental policies by the central government for several years. Recently, however, Chinese leaders have tried to consolidate Beijing’s control over the country’s socio-economic policies, including by bringing environmental regulations in line with national priorities. To that end, Chinese President Xi Jinping highlighted the importance of environmental reform at the country’s October party congress. A recent uptick in regulatory inspections and fines across the country demonstrates his willingness to back rhetoric with action.

Divided and Decentralized

Clearly India is not the first country to combat crippling urban smog as its economy develops. But the circumstances in which it must fight that battle are different from those of its predecessors. Today four of the top 10 cities on the World Health Organization’s list of most polluted urban areas, measured by the concentration of particles less than 2.5 microns across, are located in India. As is true in parts of China, the Indo-Gangetic Plain creates a natural bowl that collects and holds the pollution stemming from agricultural, municipal and industrial activities nearby. Each winter, as temperatures cool, the layer of air trapping these pollutants floats downward, creating conditions ripe for sustained smog events. Much of the recent media attention surrounding this problem has centered on New Delhi, but cities throughout the neighboring region of Uttar Pradesh — Lucknow, Kanpur and Varanasi, to name a few — have similar (and in some cases worse) problems with pollution.

Mapping South Asian Pollution

The disjointed nature of the creation of pollution and the bodies that regulate it will make tackling this issue even more difficult for India than it was for the rising economies that came before it. Economic growth, plus the industrialization and power production that accompany it, is often the primary driver of air pollution. But according to studies by the Indian government, roughly a third of the air pollution in the country’s north comes from the burning of agricultural waste or biomass for the purposes of heating or cooking; another small but notable percentage comes from burning garbage. Such widespread activities will be far more difficult to regulate than a finite, contained group of polluters.

Urban and rural culprits, moreover, have each tried to shift the blame to the other. Farmers often rebuke automobile drivers and power plants for the country’s environmental troubles, while city dwellers point to the burning of stubble, or crop waste, at the end of the harvest season as the source of the smog. The rift between the two groups, in turn, has put the government in a tough position. New Delhi has tried to limit traffic congestion with a scheme based on even and odd license plate numbers, but academic studies have called into question its effectiveness. As the country’s urban populations grow and cities spread closer to power plants, industrial contributions to pollution will be even harder to restrict. Meanwhile, many Indian farmers see few options other than burning for clearing their fields quickly and cheaply after a harvest. Because despite the increasing mechanization of Indian agriculture, proper equipment isn’t always readily available to the country’s rural communities.

To make matters more complicated, Indian society has put little pressure on New Delhi to act. Environmental issues tend to be a priority of India’s middle and upper classes, but they are usually less pressing politically to the country’s larger lower classes. The groups contributing to pollution are also sizable, and the central government’s powers are limited — especially when it comes to issues that cross regional lines, as pollution often does. Without tight control at the national level, as China enjoys, India’s fragmented structure of governance will make it difficult to implement environmental laws that have a chance of being effective.

In the short term, these political hurdles may be the hardest to overcome. Northern India, where the smog is usually worst, is still split into four jurisdictions ruled by three different political parties. One of them, the Aam Aadmi Party in charge of Delhi, is a strident critic of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and may be unwilling or unable to find room for compromise with his administration on environmental issues. That said, in the past such problems have fallen to the country’s powerful court system to decide.

Lately India’s environmental minister has tried to downplay the severity of the country’s environmental crisis while showcasing New Delhi’s response to it. The government is rumored to be considering the creation of a newer, stronger Environment Ministry to replace the weak institution currently in place. Furthermore, officials have slapped the construction sector with pollution fines. At $1,500, however, these fees are unlikely to deter the lucrative industry. And as Modi enters the final year of his term, urgent economic and security matters will likely pull attention and momentum away from any fledgling environmental movement. As a result, smog will continue to come and go in India with the turn of each new winter season.


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