India has long been plagued by air pollution from a variety of sources -- the use of wood-burning stoves for cooking and heat, vehicle emissions, the burning of crop residue, and most recently, from its rush to coal-burning power plants to meet its burgeoning electricity needs. But that takes a toll, with illnesses caused by pollution -- from heart and lung diseases to cancers -- causing about 620,000 premature deaths in India each year. About 1/2 the country -- 660 million people -- suffer air that's so polluted it cuts 3.2 years off their lives.
But there's a flip side. A just-published study in Economic and Political Weekly reveals that that if India could reduce pollution enough to meet its own air quality standards, hundreds of millions of Indians would breathe easier.
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"India's focus is necessarily on growth," one of the study's authors, University of Chicago Energy Policy Institute director Michael Greenstone, noted in a press release. "However, for too long, the conventional definition of growth has ignored the health consequences of air pollution."
But solving the problem won't be easy. The study's authors, who also include researchers from Yale and Harvard, think that cleaning up India's air would necessitate major changes in the government's environmental regulation. India needs more monitoring stations to track pollution, and must institute a "polluter pays" system that hits companies who violate emissions limits with heavy fines. Existing Indian laws threaten violators with jail time and business seizures, but in practice, those harsh measures are seldom utilized, the researchers claim.
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Additionally, the researchers argue that India would benefit from market-based solutions, such as a cap-and-trade system in which companies theoretically would be encouraged to reduce their emissions even further than the national standard, because they could sell credits to others. Europe has such a system for carbon emissions, but it has encountered difficulties – in part, critics say, because government regulators allotted credits so generously that they reduced their market value.
In 2014, the World Health Organization found that the Indian city of Delhi had the world's worst air quality of 1,600 cities across the world, surpassing even notoriously polluted Beijing. According to the Guardian, an Indian air-quality official, Gufran Beig, disputed that dubious distinction, but only so far as to insist that Delhi and Beijing were roughly comparable. The pollution is so high that it actually has reduced Indian crop yields by half, according to a recent study.