Thursday, Jun 01, 2023

Is India’s Pollution Data Hiding Behind The Poor?

Is India’s Pollution Data Hiding Behind The Poor?

The bottom 50 per cent of India's population who holds just 2.8 per cent of national wealth, are prone to health issues and other factors due to increased pollution levels.

Is India’s Pollution Data Hiding Behind The Poor?

Janak Prasad, 52, lives in Jasola, Delhi, from where he commutes to his office every day on a bicycle. He says it is convenient and economical, and it also saves a lot of time. However, his major concern is that there’s no separate lane for cyclists. “We have to ride on the main road which makes us prone to road accidents. And then there is air pollution. Cyclists directly inh­a­le the pollutants. We do not pollute the env­ironment but are the worst sufferers.” This very concern of Janak Prasad questions the government’s claim to have less per capita CO2 emissions in India than other countries.  

In last month’s COP26 summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that in India, CO2 emissions per capita are much lower than other major world economies. India has claimed this at several world conferences. He also talked about consumerism, and gave a mantra of LIFE—lifestyle for the environment. But a recent study conducted by Pew Research Center using World Bank data has estimated that the number of poor in India—with income of $2 per day or less in terms of purchasing power parity—has more than doubled to 134 million from 60 million in just a year due to the pandemic-induced recession. This shows that a large section of our society lacks the privilege of leading a decent lifestyle and they the contribute least to air pollution and CO2 emissions.

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If we try to understand this by taking the example of Delhi, then according to the recent report by the Centre for Science and Environment, the transport sector contribution is around half of the pollution from only local sources. This is followed by household pollution that has ranged bet­ween 12.5 to 13.5 per cent, industry 9.9-13.7 per cent, construction 6.7-7.9 per cent, with waste burning and road dust each varying between 4.6-4.9 per cent and 3.6-4.1 per cent, respectively.

The data clearly indicates that vehicles contribute to 50 per cent of air pollution in Delhi. According to an economic survey report, 643 out of 1,000 people in Delhi own personal vehicles. This also means that 347 out of 1,000 people do not contribute to vehicle emissions. But if the per capita average of CO2 emission is calculated, then every person will contribute to CO2 emissions to some extent, directly or indirectly. If we look at the vehicle data for India, according to website Statista, there were around 225 registered vehicles for every thousand people across India in the fiscal year 2019-20. This means that over three quarters of India’s population do not own personal vehicles. Similarly, a sizeable population of India does not contribute to industrial pollution, or pollution due to construction, or pollution due to waste burning. Now, without taking these data into consideration, where already a large share of India’s population do not contribute to air pollution, India boasts its numbers on the global stage by calculating average per capita, as it gets us less CO2 emissions per capita.

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Greenpeace India’s senior climate campaigner Avinash Kumar Chanchal says, “We should stop calling the climate crisis a ‘human-induced’ crisis when we know the fact that just 100 polluting producers are responsible for around 70 per cent of global emissions. It is the rich countries and classes that have been historically responsible for emissions growth and they need to change their business and lifestyles if we are to ever tackle climate heating. We need to acknowledge that in soc­iety the most vulnerable communities are paying a higher price for impacts of climate change than the rich when they are not guilty of it in the first place.”

He adds, at this point, that we are facing two sharply contradictory realities. On the one hand, we have a rapidly growing rich consumer class that has been contributing to the climate crisis by choosing certain lifestyle choices, and on the other hand, we have millions of low-inc­ome group people who are extremely vulnerable to climate or air pollution crisis. We need to talk about the elephant in the room. Who is contributing to the emissions? Is the rich class hiding behind the poor? On the international platform, India talks a lot about common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) which is the right thing to do, but is it right to implement this principle among the various social-economic groups in the country? India’s poor must not bear the climate impact bec­ause of the other India’s lifestyle choices.

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According to Oxfam India’s report 2020, India’s top one per cent population holds 42.5 per cent of the national wealth, while the bottom 50 per cent holds just 2.8 per cent. Now this 50 per cent are the people who are daily wage earners and migrants who work in unorganised sectors. These people commute by metro, bic­ycles, or even on foot. They work in high-risk areas where pollution levels are high, like at construction sites, along roadside dumping areas etc. Thus, this section is prone to health iss­ues and other factors due to increased pollution levels.

The hazards of air pollution are not just res­tricted to our health and well-being, but also imp­act  the economy of the country. According to the Greenpeace report, air pollution from fossil fuels costs India Rs 10.7 lakh crore annually. It is clear that the government must come up with a holistic mechanism to combat pollution which is suffocating not only our breath but has also started strangulating our economy. For the human race to survive, more than our health, the economy is the key factor for initiating any big change for our overall well-being and it has to happen now.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Objects In The Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear")

(Views expressed are personal)


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Rohit Upadhyay is an independent journalist and documentarian