India’s 900 million voters have completed the process of selecting their next leaders. Even as many of the country’s challenges and successes are litigated in the campaign process, a question mark still hangs over how the country can tackle air pollution. More than half a billion citizens breathe air that exceeds India’s air quality standards, all of whom are therefore living shorter lives.
Based on rigorous new scientific evidence, the Air Quality Life Index estimates that if every part of India were to meet national standards, life expectancies would rise by almost two years. Across the highly polluted Gangetic plain, this number ranges from four to six years. There is no question that pollution in the air is now one of India’s greatest public health challenges.
How can India’s next elected officials solve this problem, and by doing so substantially improve the lives of their people? And, just as important, how should they do so while also remaining focussed on the urgent need for robust economic growth?
A reasonable starting point might be to encourage better enforcement of the laws that are already on paper. Making all regulatory data on industrial air pollution transparent and publicly available could be an important part of the solution.
This would allow industries to see how they shape up compared to everyone else, making it hard to justify doing worse than their peers. And when the public learns who the worst polluters are in their neighbourhoods, they have the power to call for change.
Lessons from around the world give us good reasons to be optimistic about the potential of disclosure initiatives. The award winning Blue Map app in China, and the Program for Pollution Control, Evaluation, and Rating (PROPER) scheme in Indonesia, have both proved effective in reducing pollution.
India has begun to take the first steps along this path. The Star Rating Program is an innovative new idea being developed by state pollution control boards (SPCBs) across the country, together with researchers from the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), the Tata Centre for Development, and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.