By Arvind Kumar, Michael Greenstone
As we write this, residents of more than 100 Indian cities are breathing polluted air, some among the most polluted in the world. According to the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), Indian citizens lose an average of 5.2 years of their lives due to poor air quality. In some of the most polluted cities, like Delhi, people can lose even more. Research and data clearly indicate that India’s air pollution is a national health emergency.
But India is not the first country to battle the scourge of air pollution. In the past, there are cities that have experienced life-threatening levels of air pollution. In 1952, the great smog in London is estimated to have caused 12,000 deaths. Los Angeles was infamous for its toxic smog through the 1970s. Less than a decade ago, Beijing was known for its “airpocalypse”. So how did authorities in these countries get rid of grey skies? Are there lessons for Indian cities?
The experience from these cities indicate that a lot has to do with the law– specifically the recognition of public health impacts of air pollution in the law. By placing health improvements as the legal justification for air pollution regulations, London, Los Angeles, Beijing, and other cities have had the political space to achieve tremendous improvements in air pollution. Unfortunately, India’s Air (Prevention and Control) Act, 1981 does not put adequate stress on protecting public health, which makes it easier to prioritise polluters’ interests.
We believe that amending India’s Air Act would set off improvements in air quality similar to these other cities. And without such an amendment, it will continue to be difficult to protect our health from the dangers of air pollution.
A little history and comparison. The central goal of the 1970 US Clean Air Act is “to protect public health and public welfare”. As a consequence, it has always been clear that incurring costs from reducing air pollution are justified by improvements in health. Closer to home, Beijing has been taking extraordinary steps since it declared a “war on pollution” in 2013 that was launched in response to concerns about the health consequences of air pollution: the result has been rapid reductions in particulates air pollution that are unprecedented in human history. Recently, the UK Government announced a Clean Air Strategy that recognises poor air quality as the “largest environmental health risk in the UK”.