Air Emergency: Governments Flail, India Gasps for Breath

The annual air emergency witnessed is simply the consequence of systemic failures of over two decades. Every year much is said about what will be done. After all is said and done, a lot is said and little is done.

By Shankkar Aiyar| Published: 21st November 2021 06:55 AM |

There are two Indias! One which is waiting endlessly for the system to fix the problem of air pollution and the other which is taking forever to address the issue and thrives on brazen incrementalism.

Governance by abdication is now part of the playbook of governments. Unsurprisingly, the Chief Justice of India on Wednesday observed that the ‘’bureaucracy has gone into inertia’’ and simply waits for the courts to administer. History, it is said, repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce. In the Indian context, tragedy appears in episodes as apathy reduces governance to a farce. The saga of air pollution is simply the parade of systemic failures.

In 2000, the government admitted in Parliament that “air pollution in metropolitan cities exhibit an increasing trend due to increase in economic activities, urbanisation, and industrialisation”. In 2008, the government informed Parliament that ambient air quality is monitored by central and state pollution control boards and data is deployed to determine efficacy of measures.

You would think the early warnings and monitoring would matter. Yet by 2015, the phraseology of “air emergency” had acquired currency. In December 2015, Prakash Javadekar announced 39 steps under Section 18 of the Air Act to deal with factors that generate both emissions and lethal levels of particulate material from agri waste disposal, garbage burning, landfills, construction, transport emission et al.

How did the plan pan out? The short answer is both monitoring and implementation of measures fell short of the promise. In 2017, schools had to be shut down, diplomats protested and international flights were halted. In 2019, emergency measures were announced and cricket players wore masks while training. In 2021, there is a graded response action plan in place and yet there is also an emergency.

Two decades later, it would seem little has changed. And again, there are two Indias. Delhi which gets national political attention and then there is the rest of India which suffers silently. The peculiar geography of Delhi simply illuminates the magnitude of what is clearly a national problem.

In August 2021, the government shared with Parliament the data from 1,114 monitoring stations revealing that 132 cities fell under the category of “non-attainment” in terms of levels of Particulate Matter (PM). Of these, over 50 cities — for instance Delhi, Kanpur, Moradabad, Ghaziabad, Amritsar, Ludhiana, Agra — reported levels well above 100 micrograms per cubic meter, which is more than thrice the specified acceptable level of 31µg/m3.

Poor ambient air quality has consequences. In September 2021, the World Health Organisation revealed that air pollution was the cause of over 7 million premature deaths across the world. India accounts for nearly 25 per cent of these deaths. As per the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019 estimates, air pollution is the cause of over 1.7 million deaths in India — that is over 1,900 deaths an hour.

Lives matter and what is mystifying is that despite evidence presented since 1998, successive governments have laboured to deny the correlation of pollution and deaths. The standard response, as articulated again in Parliament in August 2021, is “there are no conclusive data available in the country to establish direct correlation of death/disease exclusively due to air pollution.”

The quality of air effectively reflects the gaps in policy on the ground. Essentially, this calls for the coming together of policies and capacity creation across sectors to bring down both emissions of gases and generation of particulate material. For instance, agri waste disposal impacts farm yield but farmers need options. Why not leverage the start-up ecosystem to create backward and forward linkages?

Urbanisation — from the messy landscape of construction to the tyranny of commuting — is a clear causative. This demands a rethink on policies on how scarce space is utilised — both horizontal user norms and potential for vertical growth. Must every Indian be forced to commute for hours? The need for personal transport is compelled by the inadequacy of mass transport systems. Reconfiguring the now-comatose ‘smart cities’ initiative could create room for pilots and demonstration effect.

Dependence of cities on coal-based thermal power is an issue. This needs to be addressed if plants are to shut down. Now that India has committed to ramping up renewables, why not propel rooftop solar, think in per/kwhr terms rather than in MW terms and incentivise off-grid solutions for homes and urban commercial spaces. How about integrating it into the urban planning matrix?

The fallout of poor air quality is not limited to individual health. It has a significant impact on the health of the economy and, consequently, potential growth. A study by UK-based non-profit Clean Air Fund, management firm Dalberg Advisors and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) estimates the impact of air pollution costs the economy over 3 per cent of GDP or roughly Rs 7 lakh crore.

The right to clean air cannot be at the mercy of weather gods. It is not that the problem is new or that solutions are not known. Success demands a champion empowered by political will.

Shankkar Aiyar, political economy analyst, is author of ‘The Gated Republic –India’s Public Policy Failures and Private Solutions’, ‘Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12-Digit Revolution’; and ‘Accidental India’. You can email him at and follow him on Twitter @ShankkarAiyar. His previous columns can be found here. This column was first published here.

Journalist-Analyst. Author of ‘Accidental India’ and Áadhar: A Biometric History. Studying how the market for politics rules the economics of people!