Does India Want to Solve Its Pollution Problem?

The country has the most polluted cities in the world—but so far is doing very little in response.

Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Anchal Vohra
By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
A soldier walks along a street in India.
A soldier walks along a street in India.
A soldier walks along a street near India Gate amid smoggy conditions in New Delhi on Jan. 14. JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images

In November, just when India seemed to have barely managed to control the outbreak of a deadly wave of the coronavirus, the country’s top court advised the government to mull yet another lockdown—this time to save people from falling sick to poisonous air.

The sky over Delhi for weeks has been enveloped in a cloud of toxic smog. In the absence of any wind to disperse the pollution, the air continues to fill with smoke produced within the city and beyond its borders in nearby farming states that regularly burn straw (a practice known as stubble burning). As winter arrived, wind speed slowed and pollutants accumulated in the air, trapping the city in a toxic bubble. The acrid air itches the throat and makes the chest feel heavy as soon as it is inhaled. 

Air pollution is a longstanding problem in Delhi. According to one study, residents of the city lose nine years of their lives to bad air. But this year the situation has become unbearable, with the Air Quality Index (AQI) jumping to as high as 462 (under 50 is considered safe). And the problem is neither restricted to Delhi nor winters. India is the third most polluted country in the world and home to 22 of the 30 most polluted cities according to the 2020 World Air Quality Report, released by Swiss organization IQ Air. 

In November, just when India seemed to have barely managed to control the outbreak of a deadly wave of the coronavirus, the country’s top court advised the government to mull yet another lockdown—this time to save people from falling sick to poisonous air.

The sky over Delhi for weeks has been enveloped in a cloud of toxic smog. In the absence of any wind to disperse the pollution, the air continues to fill with smoke produced within the city and beyond its borders in nearby farming states that regularly burn straw (a practice known as stubble burning). As winter arrived, wind speed slowed and pollutants accumulated in the air, trapping the city in a toxic bubble. The acrid air itches the throat and makes the chest feel heavy as soon as it is inhaled. 

Air pollution is a longstanding problem in Delhi. According to one study, residents of the city lose nine years of their lives to bad air. But this year the situation has become unbearable, with the Air Quality Index (AQI) jumping to as high as 462 (under 50 is considered safe). And the problem is neither restricted to Delhi nor winters. India is the third most polluted country in the world and home to 22 of the 30 most polluted cities according to the 2020 World Air Quality Report, released by Swiss organization IQ Air. 

Even as India’s pollution problem is reaching a catastrophic scale, the Indian government is still pursuing the transition to clean energy at only a snail’s pace. The government likes to argue that any just transition to clean energy would involve the have-nots of the world receiving financial and technological help from those who can afford it (who also happen to be historical polluters whose development needs raised global temperatures in the first place). But none of that is a sufficient excuse for India failing to get its own house in order. There is much the Indian government could do right now, if its various levels of federalized government were willing to work together rather than point fingers at one another. 

Bhargav Krishna, a fellow at Centre for Policy Research, an Indian think tank, said a year-round approach, rather than claims of surprise every time pollution season arrives, is needed to fix “a broken system of regulation.” “Tackling air pollution means year-round action across transport, industries, power, dust, and other sources, and not just stubble burning, which is a seasonal issue,” Krishna told Foreign Policy. “The airshed from Punjab all the way to Bihar is interconnected, and action therefore needs to be coordinated and meaningful across the whole region, not just focused on Delhi.” 

For the last three years, every November and December Indian television channels have summoned the representatives of different political parties governing the national capital region and the central government and questioned them on rising pollution. But the debates are little more than shouting matches that reveal a glaring lack of cooperation on how to tackle the problem in a cohesive way. 

Delhi is governed by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which claims it has done all it can: shuttered its two coal power plants, banned the use of diesel, temporarily halted construction, installed smog towers, set up teams to monitor the burning of garbage, and offered a bio-decomposer to farming states to get rid of the stubble in an environmentally friendly way rather than set it on fire. But environmentalists say a lot more is necessary and not every step has been fully implemented. “More public transport is needed, and less private,” said Ravi Agarwal, a Delhi-based environmental activist. “Construction needs to be strictly controlled at sites. Garbage burning stopped fully.” 

The Delhi government, however, blames the Indian National Congress party in Punjab of turning a blind eye to the problem. Farming is the main occupation in the agricultural state, and farmers are the largest chunk of voters. Any party that forces farmers to stop burning stubble risks losing their support in the elections. Delhi also blames its neighboring states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for neither shutting down all their coal power plants nor opting for decarbonization technologies. 

In turn, the BJP says the AAP is inefficient. It adds that the central government has done its bit to help Delhi by subsidizing Happy Seeders—vehicles that plant seeds directly into stubble without the need for tilling, hence eliminating the burning of crop residues. But farmers say they are required to pay for the Happy Seeders upfront and can only receive the subsidies later, making the planters a financially unattractive option. Stopping five of the 11 coal-fired power plants in Delhi and neighboring states has also been an unpopular decision, as both the Congress-ruled Punjab and BJP-ruled Haryana faced severe electricity outages as a result.

In a country with severe issues such as poverty, unemployment, and a glaring lack of basic infrastructure, pollution is simply not an electoral issue. But unless it becomes one, the political class will drag its feet to come up with a coherent plan and be reluctant to cooperate.

Jitendra Kumar regularly drives his taxi between Delhi, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh. On one such ride with Foreign Policy from Delhi to Meerut—a city in BJP-ruled western Uttar Pradesh, Kumar pointed to buildings made invisible by smog. He complained about lack of visibility and air that he said is hard to breathe. Yet he refused to turn off the car at a traffic light where the Delhi government had deployed volunteers to hold placards that read: “Red light on, Car off: Do your bit to reduce pollution.” Lack of awareness and reticence to change attitudes is a big part of the problem. 

But perhaps a bigger problem is that religious divisions, not pollution, are the leading theme in Indian politics. “India is split over Hindu-Muslim,” Kumar said. “That is our politics. No one votes on the basis of who will reduce pollution.

“We are staunch voters of the BJP and oppose Muslims. Pollution, what can we do about pollution?” As Kumar drove along the Barapullah highway that leads to the newly built Meerut-Delhi expressway, he praised the BJP for constructing many new highways and reducing his commuting time. Better infrastructure will reduce pollution, too, but Kumar and most Indians are still preoccupied with development first. Seventy percent of the country’s infrastructure still needs to be built.

Navroz Dubash works as a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, researching and writing on climate change, energy, and air pollution. He told Foreign Policy that India’s emissions are growing and indeed must grow because Indians are starting from a low base of energy use per person. “We have to pivot to meeting these needs with low carbon energy, but this pivot will take some time, and in the meantime Indians cannot be deprived of energy,” Dubash said. “Since emissions have to grow, the key issue is to slow down the increase; we are not at the stage where we are talking of a decrease. To do so, we need to develop sector by sector low carbon plans that also address development needs and aggressively implement these, making clear what international support is required to do so.” 

At the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised India would achieve net zero—the carbon neutrality target—by 2070. That target year is 20 years later than nations that have already developed their infrastructure, and yet it is deemed highly ambitious. Eighty-five percent of air pollution in India is generated from coal, biomass, and garbage, and over 80 percent of India’s energy requirements are fulfilled by dirty fuels. Experts believe the country’s use of coal and crude oil will peak by 2040 and 2050, respectively.

Modi has asked for $1 trillion from the international community to support India’s attempt to meet its net zero target by 2070. But according to a study by the Indian think tank Council on Energy, Environment, and Water, India needs $10 trillion to meet its 2070 goal. It needs a tenth of that, $1 trillion, from the international community to decarbonize. Arunabha Ghosh, the council’s CEO, said that “developed countries must ramp up hard targets for climate finance over the coming years,” while Indian financial regulators must enable “an ecosystem for financing India’s transition to a green economy.” He added that private capital from both domestic and international institutions should form the bulk of investment. 

Agarwal, the environmental activist, added that India needs many new technologies to combat pollution. For example, he said, technologies for retrofitting coal fired plants, technologies (such as coal washing) for carbon absorption and decarbonization since India has high ash content coal, and technologies for renewables and infrastructure for e-vehicles are all needed.

The international community must release at least a portion of promised funds and proactively share technology. But Indians too need to start to call out their political class and make pollution their top election issue. Otherwise, they will condemn themselves and future generations to gaping at the sky fruitlessly in search of a patch of blue or even a single cloud. 

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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