Iindians are Get used to seeing senior politicians or foreign dignitaries get a coat of paint on their streets or the odd pothole filled in before they come to town. But in preparation for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit on Feb. 10, officials in Mumbai adopted a new strategy. They sprinkled the road with water.
They hope to suppress the street and construction dust that contributes to the ubiquitous smog in cities. For much of this winter, Mumbai’s skyscraper-lined skyline was barely visible behind a gray haze of particulate matter. On some days, the air in the Arabian Sea city is worse than that in India’s more polluted capital, Delhi. From November to the end of January, the country’s commercial capital, Mumbai, had 36 days of “poor” air quality, where even healthy people could struggle to breathe. This represents a dire extension of what is already one of the world’s worst environmental problems.
Delhi and nearby cities on the densely populated Indo-Gangetic plain that stretches from Pakistan to Bangladesh have long had some of the dirtiest air in the world. Yet the smog is spreading as infrastructure building and industrialization accelerate in the region, in part due to a post-pandemic growth spurt. Nine of the ten cities most affected by air pollution in the world are in South Asia, according to a new World Bank analysis. On February 12, only two of the ten most polluted places in India were in and around Delhi during the worst winter smog season. The rest, including Mumbai, are in western India.
Earlier this season, the Pakistani city of Karachi, also on the Arabian Sea, and Peshawar, near the border with Afghanistan, both briefly topped the index of cities with the worst air quality in the world. In Kathmandu, on the northern edge of India’s Gangetic plain, the snow-capped Himalayan peaks on the fringes of Nepal’s capital are often shrouded in tawny mist.
South Asia’s dirty air is taking a dire toll on the health and economic prospects of millions.high levels of fine particulate matter, known as afternoon2.5. Deep into the lungs and into the blood, increasing the risk of cardiopulmonary disease and stroke. Air pollution is estimated to kill more than 2 million people a year in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan. Globally, it reduces average life expectancy by 2.9 years. The corresponding figure for India is five years. According to a recent study, in the Gangetic plains of India, the average life expectancy of Indians is seven years shorter than otherwise due to air pollution.
A recent article published in LancetMedical journal estimates India’s economy lost $37 billion in 2019, accounting for 1.4% of global economic losses gross domestic product, death and disease related to pollution.Another study by the Clean Air Fund non-governmental organizationAnd the Confederation of Indian Industry, a trade body, calculated that India lost 1.3 billion working days that year as workers or their family members stayed home with pollution-related illnesses. Smog has wreaked havoc in Pakistan’s Punjab province, which accounts for 60 percent of the country’s production, this winter; its school holidays have been extended, flights have been diverted or delayed, and highways have been closed overnight.
Predictably, the poor see the worst. The Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar on the Ganges River are among the poorest regions in South Asia—more than 115 million residents live on less than $2 a day—and the most polluted. Poor people are more likely to use dirty fuels, leading to high levels of indoor pollution. Meanwhile, “rich people are trying to create a bubble for themselves with air purifiers,” says Karthik Ganesan of the Energy Environment and Water Council, a Delhi-based think tank.
Air pollution, while affecting rich and poor alike, is uneven and is a political issue across the region. However, its government’s mitigation measures have mostly had little effect. India launched its National Clean Air Program in 2019 with the aim of improving air quality in 102 cities (later increased to 131). Four years on, only 38 are on track to meet the target. Pollution has increased in many other places, including Bengaluru, Chennai, Mumbai and Nagpur. Pakistan, beset by a protracted crisis, is hesitant to launch its own national clean air plan. Bangladesh drafted a clean air bill in 2019 but has yet to pass it. Across South Asia, “despite policies to improve air quality, there has been little improvement,” says Hans Timmer of the World Bank.
There are many explanations for this failure, including the difficulty of regulating the industry in regions where government is weak and corruption is rife. However, the biggest reason, the World Bank says, is that policymakers are primarily trying to reduce pollution inside the cities concerned, much of which comes from elsewhere.
Take the smoke that billows from the Indian state of Punjab every autumn when millions of farmers in the state set fire to their stubble fields. It drifted east, encircling Derry and other cities in the northern plains. Or the polluted smog from brick kilns that surround Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. “In most cases, less than 50 per cent of the pollution comes from the cities themselves,” Mr Timmer said. In three South Asian capitals — Colombo, Dhaka and Kathmandu — less than a third of air pollution comes from within the cities. About 30% of the pollution in the Indian state of Punjab comes from Pakistan, while 30% of the pollution in major cities in Bangladesh comes from India.
A better approach is to design and deploy control measures in remote areas where air pollution circulates, known as airspaces. It has succeeded in Europe and China, whose capital was once as synonymous with smog as Delhi is today. Beijing’s air is now cleaner, thanks largely to the establishment in 2013 of a strong regional air management agency responsible for the capital, Tianjin city, and 26 neighboring counties. 2017 afternoonBeijing’s level of 2.5 is half of that of the previous year.
India is trying to emulate this example in and around Delhi. In 2021, it established a pollution control body called the Air Quality Management Council (Quality Management Center), covering an area of 55,000 square kilometers, including the capital and parts of the states of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. It has a population of 46 million.Its constituent authorities include Delhi and the four states, several central government ministries and various universities and non-governmental organizationSecond. “The idea is not just to bulldoze, but to follow a practice that gives everyone confidence,” said committee chair MM Kutty.
Although many criticize Quality Management CenterThe progress is slow, but early results are expected.Average daily concentration in Delhi according to official data afternoonThe 2.5 drops in 2022, the agency’s first year of operation, to 98 micrograms per cubic meter from 105 the previous year. “serious” hours afternoon2.5 dropped from 628 to 204. Making more significant progress will require a major expansion of this approach, the Bank said.
blue sky thinking
It identifies six regional air domains. They are vast and cover multiple cities, provinces and national jurisdictions. Notably, four of the six crossed national borders. One extends from eastern Iran to western Afghanistan and southern Pakistan; the other covers most of northern India and western Bangladesh. According to the World Bank’s model, the more coordinated the pollution control measures taken in these regions, the more cost-effective and effective they will be.
Ideally, it suggests, authorities within a given air domain collaborate on data sharing and policy development, while each working towards locally determined goals. This would allow them to prioritize relatively easy or low-cost forms of pollution control — such as regulating brick kilns — over more difficult or costly forms of pollution control, such as shutting down coal-fired power stations. In such a scenario, South Asians would experience higher life expectancy, lower infant mortality rates and lower health care spending, the World Bank estimates. The approach costs an estimated $5.7 billion and could deliver economic benefits worth $52.5 billion by 2030.
The World Bank authors acknowledge that the idea of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan – not to mention Afghanistan and Iran – cooperating to such an extent is “far from straightforward”. This seems almost ridiculous. South Asia is one of the most discordant and disintegrated regions in the world. It is plagued by a history of war and mutual suspicion. Its cross-border linkages are minimal. Trade within the region accounts for just 5 percent of its members’ total trade; the corresponding figure for East Asia is 50 percent, according to the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank. direct current.
Yet if anything can begin to heal the region’s divisions, perhaps the shared goal of helping its people breathe easier. Air pollution has prominent political significance across South Asia, the very opposite of a zero-sum game. The winds of the subcontinent blow to and fro; none of South Asia’s polluted countries and cities is permanently on the windward side. In order to truly reduce the disaster for all of them, they will eventually have to cooperate. ■