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Air pollution and Delhi

, November 22, 2017, 0 Comments

air-pollution-marketexpress-inSmoke! Smog! These two words are frequent updates on Google weather alerts across Indian metros. Air in India has lost its status as a public good and become a luxury good. What makes matters worse is the fact that air is so vital – it’s a biological need than a human need. And clean, breathable air definitely has become a commodity which only the rich and affluent can enjoy – particularly in India.

Pradooshan padega mehenga!

While multiple reports highlight Delhi’s air pollution levels, what is disheartening is the fact that people really don’t take any steps to shield themselves from the same. Memes and jokes on social media pertaining to air pollution are not hard to find. During my stay in Delhi-NCR over the last one year, I could hardly spot any Delhi-ites wearing masks (not sure if the situation has changed this time around). The few people who endorsed breathing masks in Delhi were expats and some policemen. And when I sported one, I was the subject of attention in public. Itching, irritation and breathing problems are casually passed on as allergies. People on the road feel safe rolling up the windows of their cars, not realizing that air conditioners in most Indian cars are not equipped with air filters. The air, which they feel is safe to breathe inside the car, is essentially the same polluted air. A temporary ban on odd or even numbered cars for a few days out of 365 days won’t really help.

Businesses on the other hand, seem to be latching on the opportunity. According to reports, the market for air purifiers is close to Rs. 500 crores and growing stronger. The trend is not hard to catch. Pages of leading dailies are more often than not flooded with advertisements of air purifiers. Air purifiers have also found their way into the tech reviews sections. More and more companies are venturing into the growing air purifiers market. If the trend continues, I will not be surprised if masks and air purifiers make their way into the consumption basket of Indians in the subsequent NSSO rounds. While this doesn’t really strike us in the face, it is a matter of grave concern.

The Health and Environment Alliance (a European not-for-profit organization) estimates that every year, 1.4 million premature deaths occur in India as a result of air pollution. $140.7 billion is the cost India incurs as health costs for using fossil fuels.

Air pollution makes renewable energy costly – reduced sunlight and dirty solar panels, resulting in reduced efficiency and higher maintenance costs.

In 2013, the World Bank listed air pollution as the fourth major risk factor to death. According to the same report, India ranks only second to China in terms of welfare losses due to air pollution. Health costs of air pollution are widely known – reduced life spans, respiratory disorders, skin diseases, cancer – and so on and so forth. In 2013, air pollution cost India 8.5% of its GDP. That’s a big number. Despite this the Center and state governments seem to be too sanguine about the entire situation, even when everyone is concerned both about pollution as well as low levels of growth.

The pollution over Delhi-NCR recently caused many offices to shut down. This is a clear loss of man-days and national output. Schools too were shut. Again, that has an economic cost – both in terms of man-days and training days lost.People prefer to stay indoors, resulting in loss of business to many. The only thing that gets a boost is perhaps the demand for air-purifiers. But I’m sure the economic loss due to air pollution outweighs the gains from increased demand for purifiers. If one is to argue further, most of the purifiers are made outside India (or at least majority of their components are imported) – hence an increase in imports.

Pollution adversely affects tourism too. According to World Travel and Tourism Council, in 2016, travel and tourism directly contributed $71.7 billion to India’s GDP and generated 25.4 million jobs. The total contribution (direct + wider induced impacts) is much higher. Tourism contributes 3.6% of Delhi’s GDP and Delhi contributes 4.4% to India’s tourism GDP. Delhi is home to 3 UNESCO World Heritage sites. Another 7 ASI protected sites are in Delhi. Let’s not forget the Lotus Temple and Akshardham, and the Taj Mahal in close proximity. Pollution adds to the upkeep costs of these sites as well. Flights and trains get rescheduled, or cancelled, resulting in loss of freight and passenger traffic. A US airline temporarily suspended its operations in Delhi over health concerns for its staff. Road traffic too gets disrupted and moves slowly. A columnist in another daily reported that a friend of hers (who is a US based investor) cancelled his business trip to Delhi in the wake of pollution levels – clear loss of business, so much for ease of doing business.

As always, the solution to a problem starts from creating awareness and acknowledging it. Breathing in Delhi is as good as smoking 2 packs of cigarettes a day. A short film highlighting the causes and effects of air pollution could be made mandatory before a feature film just like the National Anthem and Smoking Warning. Perhaps it’s time for a Mukesh V2.0 suffering on account of air pollution. Pradooshan padega mehenga!

The author is a corporate economist. Views are personal.