Air pollution threat increases unhindered across South Asia
A quick look at the global map of air pollution in the Global Disease Burden (GDB) report of 2018 shows a dark maroon belt of tropical countries, stretching from South Asia to West Africa. These are the countries with the worst air pollution in the world. While many of the nations may be relatively sparsely populated, at the eastern fringe of the belt — South Asia — is home to nearly 2 billion people — almost 30 percent of the world’s population.
In the report, released in mid-2018, South Asia accounted for more than half of the world’s premature deaths recorded the previous year due to air pollution. Worryingly for India and its neighbors, while China and India registered nearly half the global air pollution-related deaths, both with over 1.3 million each, China has shown a dramatic improvement in curbing the number of deaths, while in India and South Asia the numbers continue to rise sharply. India registered about 890,000 deaths linked to air pollution in 2010, meaning there has been a 50 percent jump in the last eight years. Some other estimates put the number at over 1.6 million.
The year 2019 is hardly going to be any better for the people of South Asia. India’s capital, New Delhi, has been reeling under severe air pollution since Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, during which the uncontrolled use of fireworks saw the level of carbon dioxide in the air shoot out of control, clocking well over the safe limit of 1,000 parts per million. Since then, the pollution levels in New Delhi have remained severe or close to severe. The situations in other key cities of South Asia, including Kathmandu, Dhaka and Karachi, though not as severe as New Delhi, have also been worsening. Indeed, the GDB report pointed out that Pakistan, Bangladesh and India had recorded the steepest rise in air pollution-related deaths since 2010.
Despite clear evidence of the rising problem and the seriousness of the issue, governments in South Asia seem to be helpless and clueless on how to solve it. The biggest causes of air pollution are uncontrolled construction and industrial emissions, automotive pollution, and agricultural practices such as burning fields to clear them after a harvest.
It is not that the governments or societies need to be told where the solutions lie. Many of the measures to curb air pollution are self-evident. But, across the region, governments have shown a total lack of the political will necessary to impose measures to check this menace. Last year, India, for instance, made it an offense, punishable with hefty penalties, for farmers to burn their fields. However, come the winter of 2018, the entire north of India was covered by dense clouds of smoke, as practically all farmers went ahead and burned their fields instead of using other techniques such as machines to clear them.
While for the larger farmers it may have been a matter of choice, for most, especially the ones with meager landholdings, it was a question of money. India has been going through a severe farming crisis, with thousands of heavily indebted farmers committing suicide and thousands of others destroying their crops in protest against ridiculously low prices, often adding up to less than a few dollars for an entire harvest. The number of suicides is believed to have gone up by almost 50 percent in 2018 as farmers battled drought, higher input costs and record low prices for their crops.
An onion farmer in Maharashtra sent to Prime Minister Narendra Modi the measly 1,064 rupees ($15) he had earned for selling 750 kg of onions. Another farmer in Agra sent to the prime minister 490 rupees that he had been paid for his crop of 19 tons of potatoes. In this situation, for the government to expect the farmers to shell out additional costs is not only unrealistic but almost criminal. The fate of farmers in Nepal, Pakistan or Bangladesh is hardly any better, as nature’s vagaries as well as ingrained poverty and a lack of adequate government support for farmers to even eke out a living is a common feature of South Asia.
With relatively high growth in the economy, the region has also seen a sharp rise in the construction and automotive industries. India has seen a six-fold rise in cars and two-wheelers on its roads in the last two decades, most of them emitting noxious fumes as they race around the crowded roads. Dhaka has seen car sales triple over the last five years. Similarly, the region has seen unprecedented construction of offices, homes, shopping centers and industry as a growing middle class starts to spend some of its increased disposable income in these countries.
Once again, poor monitoring or even a total absence of monitoring of these industries has led to a rise in air pollution. A study by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur, a reputable technology institute, found that dust, including from construction, accounted for half the air pollution, while industry added nearly a quarter more, with automobiles and farms contributing most of the rest. But it is rare to see a construction site or a factory being shut down or penalized for not following the rules.
While governments seem to be wringing their hands, the people are far too busy trying to earn a living, find a good school for their children or get access to health care to worry about this almost invisible and silent killer. Though there are a few organizations that raise the issue, the media has been watching air quality deteriorate from the sidelines rather than take up cudgels on behalf of the people. With more than half of the world’s poorest population, many South Asians believe that their biggest problems relate to their survival today, rather than death — even if premature — years into the future.
• Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of the Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India that includes publishing, communication and consultation services.