Written with Kalikesh Deo, a member of India’s parliament from the State of Odisha
By the end of this month, 900 million voters in the 3rd largest economy in the world will have elected a new government. A long and vigorous campaign season has touched upon a myriad concerns: terrorism, jobs, corruption, religious conflict, and even the uniquely Indian debate about policy initiatives for the benefit of cows. One issue that has been notably absence is air pollution.
At one level, this seems astonishing. More than 400 million people live in the Indo-Gangetic plains, the heartland of India and the most densely populated part of the world. The Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), developed by economists at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, tells us that people in this part of India die 4 to 6 years earlier because of pollution. Yet oddly enough, neither the voters lining up for hours at polling booths, nor politicians on the dusty campaign trail, have paid much attention to the air they breathe. It is worth considering why.
Political pressure to act is created for a couple reasons. When a social problem is viewed as the consequence of the failure of one political party, it is likely to become part of an election campaign. Unemployment has been at the heart of opposition speeches across the country this election season. Alternatively, some issues are guaranteed to motivate the base and therefore always discussed. Thus terrorism and national security have been central to debate in the media, and diatribes on the campaign trail.
The challenge with air pollution is that although everyone is hurt by it, it is regarded as nobody’s fault, making it rarely an important factor motivating voters. Unsurprisingly, cleaning the air has never been a political promise in India. Consequently, it is judges, not elected representatives, who have driven a disproportionate number of policy actions—from ordering factories to close down to demanding wholesale shifts in the fuels used for public transportation. This is unsustainable because regardless of the merits of judicial orders, only executive and legislative efforts can produce long-term solutions.
A somewhat fatalistic view of things is that poor countries clean up the air after more important problems have been resolved. The so-called environmental “Kuznets curve”—pollution rises with wealth until a certain level of development, and thereafter falls—is consistent with this story. We should not be pleased if this becomes the story of India, because the science makes it almost certain that there are vast and hidden costs to human health and productivity, such that cleaning the air is likely to be a catalyst for growth, not an obstacle. So how might we make pollution matter for elections?
A first step might be to rip away the shroud of regulatory secrecy that surrounds data around both environmental quality and the environmental performance of specific polluters. The world knows about India’s terrible air. What is less often acknowledged is that the country has some of the most forward looking and powerful environmental legislation in the world. The problem is that compliance with these laws is woefully inadequate. In other words, to a significant degree, legislators have done their job, while regulators and the executive branch have lagged far behind. If nothing else, making data transparent would make it easier to engender public interest, and possible to assign blame. My state of Odisha, for instance recently launched a scheme that makes the environmental performance of every large factory publicly known, alongside a simple and accessible rating relative to their peers.
It may also be necessary to frame conversations about pollution in terms that are more personal, and thus more real. Economists and academics spend a lot of time discussing air quality standards, economic efficiency, and social welfare costs. These are useful but abstract concepts. It is more meaningful to talk about shortened lives, as the AQLI measures, than “red category” air quality—we all know what the former means, while nobody understands the latter’s connection to our lives. In a similar vein, the government this election has spent some time talking about a scheme they are proud of—distributing free cooking gas (LPG) to poor households. Switching to LPG can transform indoor air quality and allows politicians to talk about these benefits. This type of change helps people understand what cleaner air might mean for their health and quality of life. After all, indoor air pollution is still pollution, something that both the rich within India and columnists in the international press occasionally forget.
A third misconception we need to remove is the widespread belief that environmental regulation is a barrier to growth. The use of market-based instruments—taxes, fines, tradeable permits—in other countries, proves that this does not need to be the case. But in India, while the economy has liberalized in many ways, our environmental regulations remains stuck in the dark ages–full of licenses, clearances, permissions, and opaque standards. The law makes most environmental violations punishable by a jail term. This has resulted not in less pollution, but in more corruption and less enforcement. Once politicians see that environmental regulation can enable clean growth, rather than slowing all growth, they will be more willing to make promises around clean air and water in the same breath as promises about economic growth.
Unfortunately, India is not there yet. It is not technology, or economics, or development that will make Delhi’s air fit to breathe. Rather, it will be our success in creating a new political discourse, one where the government can not only reduce pollution, but also win votes doing so.
Kalikesh Deo is a member of India’s parliament from the State of Odisha and a distinguished visiting fellow at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC). Anant Sudarshan is the South Asia Director at EPIC.