By Rajendra Shende

Need, or is it Greed?

In 1972, Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, famously linked poverty and environmental pollution at the United Nations Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm.Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?” she asked. Many think that she probably meant ‘greed’ and not ‘need’ in that reverberating question. Perhaps, she was echoing Mahatma Gandhi, who had said, “The earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not every man’s greed”.

Air pollution, a pervasive phenomenon in urban areas, was the scene of debacle in Delhi. Here, it was intricately linked to the divide between the poor and the rich. The former represents the needy sections of society and the later, the greedy one.

Who suffers the most?

The problem of polluted air is now scientifically recognized all over the globe. It is mainly the by-product of urbanization and has dire consequences. Air pollution consists of particulate matter (PM) 2.5, which is mainly a product of combustion, organic compounds and metals of size 2.5 microns. These micro particles are truly tiny. Dusty sand is about 100 microns, while human hair has a diameter of about 50 microns.

These micro particles are truly tiny. Dusty sand is about 100 microns, while human hair has a diameter of about 50 microns.

This size allows them to penetrate into our blood, through the lungs, and thus, reach all parts of the body. That gives rise to threats of cancer, heart attacks, and a host of respiratory diseases. According to studies by the journal Nature, and the World Health Organisation (WHO), outdoor and indoor air pollution kills nearly seven million people every year. These deaths are more than malaria, HIV/Aids and suicides combined. Further, a majority of these deaths occur in India and China.

Much like any other tragedy of the commons, it is the poor who suffer the most. They have no ‘end-of-the pipe’ response, which includes buying costly, colourful masks that don’t solve the real problem. 

We will continue to be known as ‘argumentative Indians’, unless, we come to terms with the seminal and primary facts of our developmental imperatives. We must admit that our unsustainable life style has caused harm to others and is only fulfilling our greed.

The poorer sections of society, with their inadequate capability to face air pollution, will continue to suffer the most.

Delhi’s urbanisation problem

Delhi’s population is currently around 25 million and is likely to double within a decade. Air pollution and ecosystem degradation is one primary result of the fast and unstoppable urbanising habitat. Already, more than half of the world lives in urban areas and India is no exception.

The move towards urbanisation is inevitable. It is a phenomenon that roots from both ‘need’ and ‘greed’. While there have been attempts to reverse migration, they have not worked. One example of this is the PURA (Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas), a dream of Dr. Abdul Kalam, former President of India.

The move towards urbanisation is inevitable. It is a phenomenon that roots from both ‘need’ and ‘greed’.

Now, the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, sees urbanisation as an opportunity to reduce poverty. Thus, urbanisation is a developmental imperative and the need of the hour.

Poverty in the city

Ten percent of the population in Delhi lives below the poverty line. It is estimated that nearly half of the population, mostly migrants in slums, use bio-mass, firewood and saw dust, for cooking and other domestic purposes. Most of the bio-mass involves incomplete combustion and hence, contributes heavily to the air pollution. 

One solution is to provide smokeless chulha/stoves and biogas, as these would reduce the pollution from those sources. That, however, would take time and is costly. Further, the poor dream of a gas connection instead of the incremental improvement that would come with a new chulha. The poor cannot be asked to stop the use of bio-mass, even in an emergency, as cooking is necessary. This kind of pollution is thus, driven by ‘need’. In the long term, briquetting of the biomass for efficient burning would definitely help prevent this tragic occurrence.

On the farm

Delhi is not far from the fertile plains that act as a food bowl for most of India. Burning of agri-residue is an age old practice and farmers have experienced benefits of the same. This is despite research showing that it may not contribute to the fertility of the soil. Regardless, this practice continues, thus contributing to pollution. Apart from creating awareness among farmers, there is a need to demonstrate alternative methods of keeping soil fertility.

Smokeless fuel could be produced from the residue through briquetting without contributing to pollution, thereby, enhancing the income of the farmers.

Transport and construction

Pollution also arises from the twelve million passenger and commercial vehicles, used by both the rich and the poor in Delhi. This is the result of the use of fossil fuels in an internal combustion engine. But, it can happen while idling in traffic, or by using diesel. Some measures used across the world include enhancing the standards of fuel efficiency and banning old diesel vehicles. However, vehicle owners who engage in corrupt practices, and even vehicle manufacturers, who also cheat the law makers, hamper the implementation of these policies. Such harmful practices happen because of the ‘greed’ of society. Here, corruption aids pollution.

Modi at COP21 Summit

It is imperative for the Government of India to reduce the country’s carbon footprint while moving towards rapid economic development | Photo Courtesy: The Hindu

Construction has become the basis for national development as better infrastructure, roads, hospitals and schools, drive growth. Accompanied by a steep rise in India’s housing sector, incomes have gone up over last decade. Nearly 20 million more houses will be constructed along in Delhi by the year 2020. Banning this construction when air pollution enters the ‘red alert’ zone may be an emergency solution. In the long term, we have to ensure that construction activities including factories, are dust free and as per norms.

Coal in India

The coal fired power plants, that significantly contribute to air pollution, have become the main stay of India’s target of ‘electricity for all’. However, essential services would suffer if these plants were shut down even for a few days. Building alternative sources of power would take time. Hence, demand side energy efficiency measures and clean coal technologies, would help in reducing air pollution in the short term.

Over time, India has to develop transparent and time targeted plans to move away from coal. The alternative development model of use of solar, wind and small hydro, will also help in mitigating climate change, which needs more ambitious targets than what India has given for the Paris Climate Treaty. As per different reports, the world has to start reducing the dependency on fossil fuels and it might be able to phase them out by the end of the century.

Temporary, and long term solutions

Dips and surges in pressure, temperature fluctuations, wind intensity and other adverse atmospheric conditions are not in the hands of anyone, let alone policy makers. Even cities like London and Paris, often praised for their blue skies, face conditions that necessitate quick, temporary measures to diminish the impact. These include days when cars have to be off the roads alongside odd-even schemes. Cities in developing countries like Beijing and Mexico City regularly implement such policies. Special cells, on the lines of fire-brigade, are new ways of city-management.

‘Surgical strikes’ might be the right measure for the current situation. But, for healthy and sustainable development, and for ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas,’ we need to strike a balance between disaster management and long term measures that can truly reduce air pollution.


Rajendra Shende is the Chairman, TERRE Policy Centre, and former Director UNEP. 

Feature Image Credit: Hindustan Times

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Posted by The Indian Economist