Sat, Oct 27, 2018 - Page 9 News List

The world’s fastest-growing economy has the world’s most toxic air

Home to the world’s 10 most polluted cities, India — unlike China — is struggling to pull together a coordinated policy to curb pollution

By Iain Marlow  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Constance Chou

China, Asia’s largest economy, has long had a reputation for smoggy skies. But these days, neighboring India is fighting the far bigger battle with pollution: The South Asian nation is home to the world’s 10 most polluted cities.

Outside India’s capital, New Delhi, Kusum Tomar knows the personal and economic price of breathing some of the world’s most toxic air. At 29, she learned that pollution was the likely driver of the cancer growing inside in her lungs. She had never touched a cigarette. Her husband, Vivek, sold land to pay for her treatment. They borrowed money from family. Their savings slowly disappeared.

“The government is thinking about the economic growth of the country, but people are dying of diseases or suffering from diseases,” Tomar said. “How can you grow economically when, within your country, your citizens are facing economic problems because of the air pollution?”

India has long struggled to pull together the type of coordinated national approach that hass helped China reduce pollution. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is now pushing new initiatives it says are starting to curtail hazardous air, but any gains would have to be enough to override other facets of India’s rampant growth, from the dust left by thousands of new construction sites to exhaust from millions of new cars.

In the coming weeks, the Modi government’s policies on pollution will be put to the test as winter descends on the dusty plains of north India. Crops are burned during this season and millions of fireworks go off during the Diwali festival.

If strict policies to battle smog were successfully implemented, India’s citizens and government would be much richer. By the World Bank’s calculations, healthcare fees and productivity losses from pollution cost India as much as 8.5 percent of GDP. At its current size of US$2.6 trillion that works out to about US$221 billion every year.

While India is the fastest-growing major economy in the world, China’s US$12.2 trillion economy is five times larger.

India is still trying desperately to promote basic manufacturing, which could cause pollution to worsen, Australian National University economics professor Raghbendra Jha said.

“It’s too simplistic to assume a smooth transition” to clean economic growth in India, he said.

When Arvind Kumar of New Delhi’s Sir Ganga Ram Hospital started as a chest surgeon in 1988, 90 percent of his lung cancer patients were middle-aged male smokers. Now, 60 percent of his cases are non-smokers, while half are women, he said.

Tiny airborne particles have been linked to ailments from asthma to heart disease and lung cancer, contributing to the deaths of more than 1.1 million Indians in 2015, according to the nonprofit Health Effects Institute.

Meanwhile, after two decades of expansion that reshaped the global economy, China is orchestrating a shift to less-polluting services and consumption. So, while its cities still see smoggy days, they have also seen improvements.

The number of “very unhealthy” days or worse — when levels of dangerous particles called PM2.5 crossed 200 — rose to 84 in New Delhi last year from 66 in 2015, according to analysis of air quality data from AirVisual, which tracks air quality.

In Beijing, they dropped to 20 days from about 43 over the same period.

“The major challenge is that people are not consistently demanding improvements in air pollution, as happened in China,” Michael Greenstone, director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, said via e-mail. “This is because the extent to which air pollution is causing people in India to lead shorter and sicker lives is not yet fully recognized.”

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