A traffic police officer directs traffic in front of India's presidential palace amid dense smog in New Delhi, November 2012.
B Mathur / Courtesy Reuters

Just a few days before U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in India in January this year, the U.S. embassy in New Delhi recorded an Air Quality Index reading of 222, a level that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency describes as “very unhealthy,” nearly “hazardous.” In fact, the pollution level was so bad that the embassy purchased 1,800 Swedish air purifiers ahead of the president’s arrival.

A year before Obama’s visit, New Delhi surpassed Beijing as the most polluted city in the world. As a whole, India’s air quality lags far behind that of the other BRIC countries. The country has 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world and, along with China, the highest average exposure to cancerous fine particles, which, because of their small size, can lodge deeply into human lungs. In 2010, India’s Central Pollution Control Board found that the particulate matter in 180 Indian cities was six times higher than World Health Organization standards.

Air pollution is an urgent public health crisis. More people in India die of chronic respiratory diseases and asthma than in any other nation in the world. According to a 2015 study conducted by Michael Greenstone, an economist at the University of Chicago, the 660 million people who live in India’s most polluted cities will lose an average of 3.2 years of life because of toxic air; all together, that is 2.1 billion lost years.

And dirty air is just one of India’s many environmental problems. In addition to poor air quality, groundwater pollution, river contamination, indiscriminate mining, and the destruction of forests have severely comprised the health of the country and its citizens. If India does not change course—and soon—the country will be facing disaster.


India’s environmental crisis is not just endangering human lives, but is also holding back the country’s economy, which relies heavily on agriculture. Over the last four decades, air pollution, degraded lands, depleted forests, and declining biodiversity have cut agricultural yields in India by almost half. According to the World Bank, each year, environmental degradation costs India $80 billion, or 5.7 percent of GDP.

Meanwhile, nearly 63 percent of India’s energy needs are met by coal, the nation’s top source of carbon dioxide emissions. India has been reluctant to increase regulations on emissions, which are due to rise by 60 percent between 2020 and 2040, even though the country has one of the worst power plant emission standards in the world. (Its plants are allowed to emit three times the maximum carbon dioxide allowed in Japan and twice that in China.)

The country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has even dismantled a number of environmental protections—including the Forest Rights Act and the Forest Conservation Act—to make it easier to raze forests for coal mines and other industrial projects. According to the Indian Ministry of Power, the nationally owned coal producer Coal India Limited will double its annual production target to one billion tons over the next five years.

For Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, this story isn’t new. During his 15-year tenure as chief minister of the Western Indian state of Gujarat, the Central Pollution Control Board of India declared Gujarat the most polluted state in the country; in those days, it accounted for a whopping 29 percent of the country’s total hazardous waste. Gujarat is also home to India’s three most polluted rivers: Sabarmati, Amlakhadi, and Khari. In response, Modi set up what was touted as Asia’s first government department for climate change and supported the development of renewable energy.

Environmental challenges will become all the more pressing in the coming years as Modi embarks on his “Make in India” campaign, which aims to transform the country from an agrarian society to a global manufacturing hub. This transformation has already begun in the Gujarati city, Vapi. Due to industrial and chemical waste, it has become one of the most polluted cities in the world. The level of mercury in the city’s groundwater is 96 times higher than the safety levels set by the WHO.


The author and geostrategist Brahma Chellaney have argued that environmental damage is the price that India will have to pay to develop and transform its economy, just as China has done in the recent past, and as Japan and Western Europe did after World War II. But India need not fall into the same trap. The country can still greatly improve the lives of its citizens by focusing on environmental sustainability and greener growth.

India should begin by setting firm targets to reduce emissions. According to a study by the World Bank, although a low-emissions strategy may be more expensive in the short-run, it could deliver significant benefits in the long run. Reducing hazardous particulate matter by 30 percent would cut average annual GDP growth by 0.04 percent, but it would also cut carbon dioxide emissions by 30 to 60 percent and save a total of $47–$105 billion from reduced damage to human health.

India should also work to make its cities green. Building reliable public transportation systems and introducing mandatory vehicular fuel efficiency standards are two important steps toward reducing toxic air. The country has pledged to increase support for solar and wind energy, another positive step.

Beyond cleaning up its air, India must also develop a comprehensive approach to sanitation and waste treatment. The federal government has drafted a new National Urban Sanitation Policy that proposes innovative and cost-effective methods to manage waste in cities, which it must ensure that state governments implement. The federal government often enacts environmental policies, but local officials rarely prioritize implementing them. India should thus stress a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach. A better sanitation system would lead to long-term health benefits and also prevent costs associated with environmental cleanup. According to Chellaney, it is more cost-effective to invest in systems that will prevent degradation now than to clean up later.

But corruption may be the ultimate pollutant. In 2011, the Indian government levied a tax on coal, which was supposed to go into a National Clean Energy Fund that bankrolls research regarding green technologies. Although $6.4 billion has been collected for the fund, only $250,000 has been spent. A ministry official, speaking to The Economic Times in June 2014, blamed “lack of inter-ministerial coordination and delay in allocation.”

In the end, it comes down to Modi. India is poised for change under the leadership of a determined prime minister hungry for growth. But commercial development should not come at the cost of the natural environment and public health, risking irreversible consequences for generations to come.

The only remaining question is whether Modi and his fellow politicians care enough to act. In the recently concluded Delhi state elections, air pollution did not feature on any party manifesto. The media has also largely ignored the issue. India’s late entry into the manufacturing sector gives it the unique advantage of learning from China’s mistakes—if only it so chooses.

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  • IRA TRIVEDI is a writer and novelist. Her most recent book is India in Love: Sexuality and Marriage in the 21st Century.
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