The Pollution Demon and What We Can Do About It

Industrial Pollution

“Grow Now, Clean Up Later” Just Won’t Work

Indians are drowning, choking and gasping in a miasma of pollution. Our waterbodies, cities, towns, villages – even the very air we breathe – are increasingly getting more fetid due to the negligence and ignorance of our crushing population. The single word “pollution” is an umbrella term for the many ways in which we are wantonly destroying our habitat, and that of the thousands of species of animals, birds and insects that are fighting to survive alongside.

These are not overstatements, by any means. Sample this data: per the World Health Organization (WHO), 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India, with their citizens choking on dangerous gases such as nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide besides suspended particulate matter.

India ranks 8th out of 209 nations in threats to bird species and 5th of 137 countries in C02 emissions from electricity and heat production. Water pollution from raw sewage and runoff of agricultural pesticides has turned that issue into a national crisis. Tap water is not potable throughout the country. Inadequate or inefficient waste management has turned public spaces in most Indian cities and towns into eyesores and health hazards with garbage and solid wastes strewn everywhere.

The enormous impact of pollution is felt across the economy – in the compromised health and shortened lifespans of our citizens, in the adverse effects on agriculture, transport, industries and society, and ultimately to the GDP of the country. For instance, particulate matter pollution reduces the life span of about 660 million Indians by an average of 3.2 years. Particle pollution from the burning of fossil fuels costs 3% of the GDP in healthcare costs. Yields in wheat across the nation were 36% lower in 2010 than they would have been, absent climate and pollutant emission trends, with some states experiencing up to 50% yield losses. The consequences due to environmental degradation (a co-factor of pollution) are a whopping 5.7% of the GDP, about USD 80 billion, as reported by the World Bank.

Green Growth is the Right Kind of Growth

“Grow now and clean up later will not be environmentally sustainable for India in the long run,” states Muthukumara S. Mani, a senior environmental economist at the World Bank and the lead author of the bank’s report on conditions in India. “We believe that a low-emission, resource-efficient greening of the economy is possible at a very low cost in terms of GDP growth.” The report discusses various models to follow for growth – a 10% reduction in particulate matter by 2030, for example, will only cost the exchequer 0.3% in GDP growth. A more ambitious target of 30% reduction will lower GDP by 0.7%. Savings due to improved health in both cases are a heartening USD 24 billion and 105 billion respectively. The World Bank advocates measuring a green GDP as a real index of economic growth.

Pollution Reduction: A Matter of Importance for the State and Its Citizens

Pollution reduction is a matter of state policy, and should be implemented by a combination of legislation at the highest levels, enforcement on the ground, awareness building nationwide and citizen participation at the lowest levels.

Enforcement of already existing laws is perhaps key to the entire effort. The Energy Policy Institute at Chicago finds that India has a mixed track record when it comes to enforcing its already strong environmental regulations. The institute’s study reports that requiring new cars to have catalytic converters reduced air pollution. Air pollution receives wide coverage in local media, leading to citizen awareness and activism, persuading even the Supreme Court to step in to enforce laws. However, water pollution does not receive the same kind of attention and water pollution levels have not improved.

Pollution reduction is a tremendous opportunity for the Government to visibly and immediately improve the health and well-being of its citizens, and better the quality of their lives. It is proven to also benefit the economy: a green and sustainable path of growth is what our country should seek and achieve.


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