Wednesday, January 27, 2016

"Dead canary over here." ... "That's not a canary, that's a frog, hale and hearty, swimming in a pot of boiling water."

India’s politicians posture and make token gestures with respect to the ongoing air quality emergency, but air quality remains extremely hazardous, and the long term implications mount. Yet simple, effective, sensible, Indian solutions rest at hand.

During yesterday’s Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi, jets from the Indian airforce went roaring overhead, doing a low pass to thrill the crowds. At least, I assume that’s what they were – we couldn’t see them through the smog.

For two weeks at the start of the year, Delhi’s government experimented with an ‘odds and evens’ scheme to reduce the number of cars on the road and therefore the amount of smog in the air. The scheme was a success with Delhi’s inhabitants – perhaps more because they found it easier to get to work with the reduced traffic load than because of concerns about air quality.

For a few days after the scheme concluded, stories about air quality remained in the news in Delhi. Now however, they’re gone completely. Yet the air quality emergency continues as the air quality remains appallingly mired in the hazardous zone. Perhaps Indians feel being seen to be doing something about it, to be mildly inconvenienced, is enough, and now we can all get back to breathing muck.

The odds and evens scheme, we’re told, will return in a modified form later in the year – hopefully one that includes letting children go to school, and excludes the Delhi government’s public transport department from buying special ‘executive’ buses to move the elite around.

But really, if India’s governments are serious about addressing the air quality problem, bigger issues than the number of private cars on the road need to be addressed. The principal source of air pollution in the Delhi region is material burned, mostly for cooking. The second largest cause is the burning of stubble by farmers in Punjab. Traffic comes in third, and even then, the largest contributors to pollution are older diesel vehicles, principally trucks and cars to a lesser extent.

What an opportunity presents itself there!

At least a partial solution for the first problem is to promote the effective sale and distribution of what are commonly called ‘smokeless ovens’. The BJP gave a commitment to their introduction as part of its election spiel. One of its leading lights, Nitin Gatkhari, was happy to leverage his political campaign to promote the smokeless oven his company makes. But little has happened since with this component of Modi’s ‘Make in India’ policy. Nevertheless, the ovens are widely available, through both ‘social’ and commercial enterprises, and relatively small amounts of seed funding (eg. micro-loans for the purchase of on-market ovens, plus support) could generate substantial returns.

The solution to the second problem? Instead of burning the stubble in situ in the Punjab, one too cute option would be to buy it from the farmers, and turn it into fuel for the ovens. Alternatively, since farmers in other parts of India harvest their stubble to use as animal feed, buy the stubble and then sell it back as feed. 

As far as the traffic problem goes, India could take a leaf from China’s book, where the production of electric powered vehicles is into the hundreds of thousands and growing 250% every year, and their use is widespread. Another opportunity for Make in India to make a difference.

In the meantime, on odd and even days both, the long term consequences of air pollution for India’s development (loss of productivity through illness, rising health care costs, downturn in tourism, relocation of sporting events, lower standard of living, etc) continue to mount.

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