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Air Quality and the Politics: India, China and United States By Raakhee Suryaprakash

C3S Monthly Column M005/15

The Great Smog of 1952 in London caused some 12,000 deaths in December 1952 and led to air pollution becoming an issue of concern and finally the implementation of the Clean Air Act 1956. A 2014 WHO (World Health Organization) report listed “air pollution ‘is single biggest environmental health risk’” and this and other climate change realities are slowly causing Clean Air acts and monitoring to spring up in and around the developing world.  According to the report one in eight deaths worldwide – that was 7 million – is attributable to the effects of either indoor or outdoor air pollution. In India it is the fifth leading cause of death after high blood pressure, indoor air pollution, tobacco smoking and poor nutrition, with about 670,000 premature deaths annually occurring from air pollution-related diseases (a 2013 study). Like Los Angeles and London of the previous century China, Southeast Asia, India and their landlocked cities in particular now face an unprecedented public health crisis due to air pollution.

The politics over the air quality has continued for a while now with much brouhaha made over the Swedish air purifiers bought in the dozens for US President Obama’s visit to New Delhi to preside over the routinely smog-covered Republic Day parade. This was later followed by reports that Germany, US, and Japan were planning to reduce the Indian tenure of their diplomats keeping in mind the health risks posed by our polluted capital and metros! US embassies which have been reporting on air quality in Indian cities for a while now then reported to be launching Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) AirNow system in the country soon. All this even as the Government of India (GOI) launched its National Air Quality Index (AQI): A lot of monitoring but less actual action to curb air pollution.

The AirNow system was slowly brought in to China during the time of the Summer Olympics in 2008 evolving from US embassies’ monitoring of air quality to an official collaboration between the Chinese government and the EPA by the time of the Shanghai Expo in 2010. More recently the live air quality measurements and campaigns to clean up the air in China have led to films like Chinese journalist Chai Jing’s two-hour documentary Under the Dome. Chai Jing’s quest to find the causes and solutions to China’s severe smog problem attracted over 200 million views online in just one week and later made pollution a hot topic at the annual session of National People’s Congress. Fashioned on the lines of Al Gore’s Nobel Prize winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Under the Dome recommends that every citizen take personal responsibility to reduce the air pollution levels by monitoring polluters and pollution in their area. Air Quality levels are conveniently delivered to the smartphones in China and when conditions deteriorate pre-schools and nurseries are closed and government health advisories are announced asking parents to keep their toddlers indoors thus helping people keep track of their exposure to air pollutants especially PM 2.5, the tiniest of airborne pollutants, which contribute to a range of diseases, including asthma and heart disease. When one considers that New Delhi overtook Beijing as the most polluted capital in February 2014 the need of the hour in India as well is to take action to reduce air pollution.

The Hindu has a campaign on with regular articles on air pollution levels across the nation. Before the launch of the AQI according to statistics reported in an article in the newspaper, Bengaluru was the most polluted metro in the nation outstripping even New Delhi with a “Very Poor” air quality ranking. Other cities with a “Poor” ranking worse off than the much maligned national capital included Kanpur (Uttar Pradesh), Pune (Maharashtra), Faridabad (Haryana) and the prime minister’s very own parliamentary constituency – the holy city of Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh). Since then the Government of India’s national AQI was put in place, launched by Prime Minister Modi with a ‘One Number-One Colour-One Description’ for people to judge air quality, according to the Union Minister of State for Environment, Forests and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar. The AQI initially covers 10 cities — Delhi, Agra, Kanpur, Lucknow, Varanasi, Faridabad, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad — “each of which are to have monitoring stations with AQI display boards” with the goal of eventually deploying the index in all cities with a population of over a million. Measures to check deteriorating air quality are still up in the air!

There remains a strong correlation between increased pollution and dense fog events. These fogs/smogs in turn affect not just health but productivity as flights are delayed, travelling in fogged roads become a hazard and traffic snarls and accidents delay the commute.  In Bengaluru, a third of all children are already believed to experience health issues due to pollution. Eighty percent of the children commuting through the polluted peak traffic conditions in buses without air-conditions were found to have poor or bad lung capacity. Another study, conducted by economists and public policy experts from the Energy Policy Institute at Chicago, Yale and Harvard University, found that India’s poor air quality reduces the lifespan of the average citizen by 3.2 years.

Sadly smog related events are not confined to the developing world and its effected not limited to health scares and scars. In the United States in March 2015 poor visibility led to not just two helicopter crashes but also the collision of two 600-foot ships causing a leak of flammable liquid Methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) a gasoline additive as well as leading to the temporary closure of the Houston Ship Channel.  Air pollution, Water pollution, financial loss, vessel damage and loss of life all due to “Bad Air” and poor visibility! It was also the second ship collision in the channel in less than a week. No pollution and no injuries were reported as a result of the 445-foot tanker and 892-foot container ship bumping about 15 miles up the channel from Galveston.  The helicopter crash during a training exercise off the Florida Panhandle resulted in 7 Marines and 4 crewmembers being presumed dead.

While Los Angeles, London and even Paris have taken concrete steps to improve air quality (e.g., car free days, free public transport days, restriction on the number of vehicles with access to the cities, stringent checks of vehicle exhausts, and planting of green cover to name but a few), in India, Southeast Asia and even China the measures to address air pollution are not completely in place. Though “Bad Air” days are a regular and seasonal phenomena all across the region attributable not just to human activities but also the regular forest fires in the equatorial islands of Indonesia and Malaysia.  Although Beijing has adopted some great steps to work as stop-gaps when pollution levels exceed prescribed limits – kindergartens, primary and middle schools close, there is a cap on the number of cars and polluting night entry trucks allowed on the roads and polluting factories either cut down emissions or shut down completely.

Some Positive Steps to Reduce Air Pollution Taken in India

  1. According to a British study tree or plant cover reduces the amount of particulate pollution entering homes by anywhere from one-third to half. Thus the GoI’s decision to plant saplings/plants/trees along the national highways employing unemployed youth through the national rural employment guarantee scheme is a big win for those concerned about raising pollution levels, the environment and social issues.

  1. More and more CNG vehicles and electric are beginning to ply city roads

  1. Recently there was a ban put in place on the roadworthiness of more than a decade old diesel vehicles but still vehicles of all sizes and makes continue to ply the roads that pour out noxious black smoke at all hours.

  1. Public transportation running on compressed natural gas (CNG).

  1. Awareness and publicity campaigns are on across the nation encouraging drivers to turn off the engines at traffic signals to save fuel as well

  1. Planting saplings in most public roads, reducing the number of vehicles being added to the roads and a clampdown on polluting vehicles are just few recommendations to improve air quality which are yet to be put in place.

  1. Bio-gas plants and smoke-less choolahs are replacing the smoke-emitting stoves of rural households

  1. The composting pit is replacing pyres of agricultural debris.

  1. Organic small farms are slowly catching up helping trap carbon while reducing debris and smoke from the older methods of agricultural waste disposal.

Development vs. Pollution Control

As the engines of future economic growth China and India are close collaborators in the international climate change negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) since the early 1990s despite irritants in relations such as border disputes and other traditional security concerns in South Asia. China and India’s BASIC group, along with the US, shaped the Copenhagen Accord, setting in place the “bottom-up” approach to address climate change, namely employing a pledge-and-review mechanism to replace the top-down commitment embedded in the Kyoto Protocol.

Coal burning plants power the national capital region and 7.4 million cars that fill Delhi’s roads. Every day, some 1,200 cars are added, and the city is always bustling with new construction sites, “under a smog of particle matter and racket.” Geography and location add to the problems as its bowl-like setting traps all its dirty air when the weather is cool. The situation is true in varying degrees in most towns and cities across the nation. Rural settings have the added woes of agricultural waste debris and the fumes of the choolah – the smoke-emitting fire place used in kitchens without access to gas. With the push towards renewable perhaps one day soon in the future it will become economically viable to shutdown out thermal power stations – they remain the engine of the nation!

The scepticism the powers that be in the agenda of those promoting air quality awareness reigns supreme in many avenues of power. As NGOs and GOI clash so does economic development and the environment. But slowly awareness is building of the development premium and financial losses that arise out of a demography affected by health problems and lower productivity and time keeping as a result of air pollution events.  Rather than harping on the fact that the First World nations developed to the fullest uncaring of past pollution the time is ripe to leapfrog into adopting technologies that improve our environment for our own benefit. Putting in place eco-friendly alternatives is cheaper in the long run. And it definitely will help bring in revenues are carbon-currency.

This month the carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere crossed the critical 400ppm levels. Add this to the increased air pollution and the haze and smog as a result of manmade and natural fires and we have a grim future ahead across the planet!


Subramanya, Rupa (March 5, 2015), “The Fog of War Over India’s Polluted Skies,” Foreign Policy,

“Barely one in 10 children unaffected by air quality,” Mohit M. Rao, The Hindu, May 5, 2015, p. 7

Chai Jing (2015), Under the Dome – Investigating China’s Smog,

The Hindu (April 7, 2015a),

(The writer, Ms Raakhee Suryaprakash is a Chennai-based analyst. She holds a master’s degree in International Studies and is the founder of ‘Sunshine Millennium’ focused on sustainable development and social issues.)

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