In July 2017, I had brought together a group of civil society stakeholders, healthcare experts and practitioners, technical experts and fellow Parliamentarians, to a closed-door discussion on the magnitude of the current crisis of toxic air quality across India.
The discussions dealt not only with the current state of air quality, but also extended to deliberations on what we could possibly do — as concerned citizens and elected representatives — to create a National Action Plan to address this issue.
And here’s why:
We Breathe the Same Air – So Why the Fuss?
The 2017 State of the Global Air report published by the Health Effects Institute, revealed that since 1990, the absolute number of ozone related deaths in India has risen by a staggering 150 percent. The economic implications of deteriorating air quality are equally ominous as well, with a 2013 World Bank study estimating that welfare costs and lost labour income due to air pollution, cost the exchequer nearly 8.5 percent of India’s GDP.
Labour losses due to air pollution (in terms of number of man days lost for instance) resulted in a reported loss of USD 55.39 billion in a single year.
Further, premature deaths cost the country an estimated USD 505 billion or roughly 7.6 percent of our country’s GDP. In other words, toxic air is a silent killer, and today in India, the air we breathe has in itself become a public health crisis — one that is slowly, but surely crippling our country.
The issue of air quality is, politically, similar to concerns surrounding our foreign policy. I have previously remarked that there is no BJP or Congress foreign policy — only an Indian foreign policy. So too with air quality — our political differences on the subject must end at the beginning of the stratosphere. There is only an Indian air quality and currently, little has been done to address the toxicity that is spreading.
India Must Learn that It’s Not China
But it is a problem that can still be addressed if the right kind of sustained campaign, one that focuses on practical long-term and short-term interventions to address the issue, is realised. Take for example China's action on air quality in 2013 — at the peak of toxicity in its air and with public scrutiny mounting in the wake of the Beijing Olympics, China formulated the National Air Pollution Action Plan, which imposed stringent controls on emissions and strict guidelines for air quality checks. China’s air quality strategy since, albeit, still in an incipient stage, has shown promising potential — and a valuable lesson, that the fight for improved air quality is not a lost cause.
At the same time, India must recognise that it is not China. We are after all, a democracy, where even the smallest voice matters, and where the means is just as important as the end — there is an underlying commitment, that we take everyone along in our journey.
India has officially shown considerable commitment and willingness to address these issues in the past — as the new National Clean Air Programme demonstrates, as well as on the world stage, with the Copenhagen Agreement and more recently, the Paris Agreement.
However, given the magnitude of the problem, the pace of action in protecting the environment, is found wanting.
What then must be the principal guiding light of the action plan we would like to see in India?
Our War on Toxic Air
First, it must be ambitious, bringing in the best of tech-based innovation, and interventions, wedded with our age-old heritage of sustainable practice and conservation, that has served India well in the past. We need to accept that our present infrastructure is insufficient to even monitor the scale of toxicity in air quality across the country. This, more so, in rural India, where the chulha continues to burn out the lungs of citizens who have little (let alone affordable) alternatives.
Second, the plan must also be courageous in its guidelines, proposing tough deadlines and targets that the nation will strive together to achieve.
No longer can we be complacent about timelines — that has been a major issue in the country, particularly among the industrial cluster, whose cooperation and compliance is vital. But at the same time, it cannot further weaken the weakest amongst our society — farmers — for whom stubble burning is a cost-saving practice. They need to be presented with viable, and cost-saving alternatives.
Finally, and most importantly, our action plan must be collaborative, bringing together our brightest minds including civil and technical resources, and the vast knowledge pool that we are fortunate to be blessed with in the country. I have often met individuals from organisations working in this field, only to hear their frustration in getting an audience with members from the country’s executive and legislature. That needs to change, and ultimately, that has been the singular engine behind the Round Table Consultation series.
With the help of the Observer Research Foundation, one of India’s most industrious policy think-tanks, and the Washington-based AirQuality Asia (which has effectively leveraged the Parliamentarian action model to develop an international air quality advocacy group across South Asia), I am now convening a second consultation — one that is bringing together a wider spectrum of political representatives and stakeholders, committed to addressing the invisible elephant in the room.
The realist in me understands that we will not be able to change the situation in a year or two.
Perhaps not even in five, by which time we could have seen multiple shifts in the ruling dispensation of the day. But as a cautious optimist, I strongly believe that perhaps in ten years, things can change — only if we sow the seeds of our campaign against toxic air now.
Changing Our Fate, One Breath At a Time
As I have long argued, we only need to look at our past for all the inspiration and encouragement we need in this fight. Today, for example, it is easy to forget that by 1940, Britain accounted for nearly 10 percent of the world’s GDP, while India had been reduced to a poor “third-world” country — a global poster child of poverty and famine.
But rather than meltdown into chaos and indisposition, the governments of the day set aside their differences, rallied the political class together, and in alliance with the best of our civil society and grassroots pioneers of change, waged successive, and indeed successful campaigns against poverty, pestilence and patriarchy. We still have miles to go before we sleep, but we also know, that it can be done — and so too shall be the case with toxic air.
In a country as diverse and stratified as ours, the crisis that we are required to address daily are many. But with its impact on our workforce and the scale of the public health crisis that we are dealing with, solving the quagmire of deteriorating air quality may just be the most exceptional moonshot of our time.
(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)