I still remember the touch of powder on my tongue.
Winding through Chennai’s dusted concrete orchestra in the back of a wobbling-wheel Rickshaw, many say that you can hear the city’s brain, ticking over at a thousand claps and clangs, beeps and screams a second.
But I remember its taste. As if the air itself could not escape the home-cooked recipe of Modern India.
This week, as Greenpeace announced that India’s pollution levels had catapulted above China for the first time in the 21st Century, I remembered that taste.
What seemed like an innocent, if not charming scent of industrialised India has revealed itself to be a secret, seductive poison responsible for 3.3 million deaths every year.
Not all of these are in India. Researchers Robert Rohde and Richard Muller believe that close to 1.6 million people die ever year in China as a result of outdoor pollution.
Anyone who can remember the apprehension leading into the 2008 Olympic Games, or the incredible documentary Under the Dome by Chai Jing knows that China’s air pollution crisis is now finally getting some attention.
This public pressure is also leading to significant action taken by China’s policy makers.
“China’s strong measures to curb pollution have contributed to the biggest year-on-year air quality improvement on record while in contrast, India’s pollution levels continued a decade- long increase to reach the highest level on record,” Greenpeace India
Yet after 1.6 million deaths, it is hard to imagine the scale of change that would be considered “adequate”.
To put that number in perspective, the Violations Documentation Center in Syria believe that ISIS has now killed close to 4,406 people. In 2012, HIV was estimated to have killed 1.5 million people around the world.
Yet 1.6 million people are estimated to die in China from things like Motorbike, truck and car smoke, power stations, mining and industrial activity.
Now, according to Greenpeace’s analysis of NASA-based satellites that track particulate matter around the world, India’s cities could killing even more.
“On an average day, the residents of the Indian capital breathe air fouled by fine particles at a concentration of 153µg/m3. This is close to three times the Beijing mean and 15 times the WHO guideline of 10µg/m3.” Karl Mathiesen – Climate Tracker 2015
While Karl also argued highlighted that any analysis of air pollution needs to take account the fact that monitoring air pollution on a local scale is quite difficult in many places around the world.
In fact, as the graphic below shows, many cities and countries around the world have little to no air pollution monitoring at all
This brings up obvious questions about the global impact of pollution and how one can compare a bustling, unmonitored city such as Lagos, Nigeria with a heavily monitored London, UK.
“A vast swathe of humanity is unknowingly breathing poison on a daily basis” notes Karl. ” The implication is profound, because without knowing the air is bad, nothing will be done to fix it.”
However, the question now lies, what will India do anything to fix its knowingly toxic development trajectory that is not just going to kill people in the future, it already is.
So far, some of China’s measures to combat air pollution include smog warnings, licence-plate traffic restrictions and efforts to close close to 2000 coal-fired power plants. It also plans to shut down 1000 coal mines this year and could potentially be planning to fill its major capital cities with swathes of parks, rivers and lakes to “ventilate” much of the urban pollution,
These measures directly target urban pollution levels, but will also do a lot to combat global climate change, creating a positive feedback loop for local and global residents.
As India hopes to double its own coal outputs over the next 5 years, it seems to be going in the opposite direction, despite positive signals regarding solar.
While combatting Climate change is vital, I see this issue much closer to home, and potentially even more immediate. However, without their own Indian version of Under the Dome, the question may even not be “what will India do”, but “what will force India to act” in the same way we know see from authorities in China.
With what could be more than 1.6 million deaths on their hands each year, my question this week is: Why do India’s leaders care so little about air pollution?