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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 19, New Delhi, April 24, 2021

Alam on Siddharth Singh’s The Great Smog of India

Friday 23 April 2021

Book Review

by Md Mashhood Alam *

The Great Smog of India
by Siddharth Singh

2018, 262 | ISBN: 9780670091171

Penguin Random House India

Air pollution in India is one of the critical issues that concerns our daily lives. Every winter from October to the last week of December most part of northern India in general and Delhi, in particular, is engulfed under a black smog and haze, what Siddharth Singh calls ‘The Great Smog of India’, largely due to stubble burning in Delhi’s neighbouring states. Although, the sources of air pollution can be both natural and man-made, however, most of the air pollutions originate from the energy we consume. The book ‘The Great Smog of India’ explores some of the significant aspects of air pollution in India and what sparks the great smog in every winter. The author tries to delve into the root cause of air pollution and what are its ramifications on people’s health and their livelihoods. The author, however, has put great effort in unravelling the air pollution crisis and its various facets which need to be considered.

 The book begins with the fundamentals as to what constitutes air pollution, particulate matter and its different sources. The author raises important concerns related to political leaders’ and bureaucrat’s persistent silence towards this grave issue of air pollution and its ill effects on health, employment and productivity of the population that ultimately undermines the national economy. In this context he points out that, “hundreds of thousands of people thrown into spiralling cycle of hospital visits, poor health and financial trouble, impacting their productivity and ability to participate in the economy” [p.5].

The author not only examines how ‘agricultural shock’ [p.149] contributes to the great smog of India every winter but also analyses important sectors which equally contributes to the already deteriorated ambient air quality such as energy generation, industry and transport. Finally, the author also critically examines political and administrative issues which hinder decisive action to tackle this crisis, especially in Delhi. This book will help those who have the curiosity to understand the significant reasons behind crop residue burning are and how it contributes to air pollution. The author examines the root cause of crop residue burning. He argues that farmers of the neighbouring states of Delhi, for them mid-October is the crucial time where they harvest rice and a few weeks later they start sowing wheat again. They, however, hardly get 15 days to remove the stubble from their farmland and with the unavailability of cheap labourer; farmers prefer to burn the agriculture waste [p.152].

The author uncovers how much particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide (NOx) and sulphur oxide (SO2) gets released due to the burning of one tonne of crop residue. He argues that “the root cause of stubble burning lies in green revolution moved by India.” This led to the drastic shift in cropping pattern leading to ‘agricultural shock’ due to stubble. It was this policy along with the introduction of high yielding varieties (HYV) seeds which showed the way to create the Rice-Wheat Cropping System, popularly known as RWCS, reducing the time between the two crops. These policies, according to Siddharth, expedited the practice of crop residue burning resulting in air pollution crisis in the northern region of India [p.156-57]. So, to stop crop residue burning completely needs full implantation and execution of advanced technology development, change in the cropping system, strengthening of existing laws, and establishing industries which should also run on stubble etc [169].

The problem of air quality crisis in India ‘silently’ affects people and takes millions of lives every year. As Siddharth mentions, more people have died due to air pollution in India than in all the Indo-Pak wars [p.5]. Despite having designed various strategies to fight the air pollution crisis it has increased unprecedentedly due to industrialization and economic agglomeration. There are five critical reasons for “The Great Smog of India” the author highlights in the book. These are: (1) the geographical and meteorological reasons behind air pollution, (2) energy generation, sources, and the external factors, (3) rapid industrialization and economic growth, (4) transport sector and (5) agriculture sector, especially after the Green Revolution.

The book expands of our understanding of the air pollution crisis in India and it reminds us that, while there are no easy solutions to this problem because we have treated this crisis as a local issue rather than as a national or even an international one. One very important characteristic of air pollution which hinders decisive action is the silence around it [p.14]. Air pollution took 1.1 million lives in the year 2015 and it will get tripled by the year 2050 if timely action is not taken. The book also examines how the air pollution crisis swelling up into economic and human development crisis in India and taking away the opportunity from people leaving them further in vulnerable conditions.

The book also talks about Delhi’s air pollution crisis and what are the precise reason behind it, particularly geographical reason, and its implications on the socio-economic and health condition of the population. The author elucidated the various sources of air pollution and used various data to support his argument. He not only highlights the main sources of air pollution but also raises the significant issue of municipal waste burning across Delhi which further exacerbates the already deteriorated air quality. Besides, the book also deals with India’s various energy sectors, particularly solar and nuclear energy and its ambitious targets. Other sources of energy generation such as hydropower and natural gas have also been highlighted.

The book points out that the north India region is gravely affected by air pollution due to petroleum refineries, automobile manufacturing plants, steel, and other heavy industries [p.97]. Developmental policy and employment generation is the reason as to why this region hosts these industries. Since environmental protection was not our priority so India is not dealing with the crisis effectively. So to mitigate air pollution, India has adopted and experimented with different strategies so that emissions can be reduced, improving air quality. These measures, as Siddharth mentioned, are: (1) cleaning up fossil fuels by applying standard technologies, (2) Switching from fossil fuels to cleaner energy such as solar, nuclear and natural gas, (3) to push towards electricity run motor, (4) odd-even strategy to restrict private transport, (5) switching modes of transport from inefficient to cleaner options such as urban rail systems [119]. Other measures like Bharat Stage I emission norms was introduced in 1999, as a result, permitted pollutants reduced by 60 per cent and 30 per cent in the case of diesel and petrol respectively [p.124].

The book gives examples of how other countries, like China, are successful in controlling their ambient air quality. One of the successful initiatives in which China has greatly shaken up the global automobile market was its electric cars. It has 250 million electric two-wheelers and 100 thousand buses as compared to India which had sold only 7000 electric cars in 2017 [p.136]. Despite major policy initiatives for pollution abatement policies put in place in China, and air quality monitoring data in various regions has actually started to indicate marked and significant improvement [1] it still has to go miles to achieve its goal of cleaner air quality.

The book explores the major causes of air pollution crisis in India and why it has been persistent. So the fundamental reasons, according to the author are a fragmented response not only from institutions that regulate and monitor air pollution but also from local elected officials to national level bureaucrats, from the court to quasi-judicial bodies, and from regulator to public sector corporations [p.173]. Owing to the conflict of interest among these institutions and agencies, decisive and timely actions to deal with the nature of air pollution crisis are acutely lacking. Another important challenge he pointed out that, the air pollution crisis persists because of the uncoordinated and uncooperative attitude of various agencies with inadequate political will and blame game to take decisive action in this regard. Apart from this, another significant challenge is not having a unified ministry like other countries have. India has different ministries namely the Ministry of Coal, the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change which make it difficult to have viable and cohesive planning and strategies.

Although, in a country like India, where economic development, poor infrastructure, social justice and security are among the most crucial political issue, concern about the environment takes a back seat. In spite of the ramifications of air pollution crisis on health, economy and even diplomacy in India, it has unable to capture larger public imagination.

The author also mentioned a report by Centre for Policy Research (CPR) which has identified some of the shortcomings in governance system to fight against air pollution “including poor institutional capacity to perform regulatory task; poorly designed, outdated or lenient environmental standards; lack of monitoring and enforcement allowing violators to go unchecked; lack of co-ordinations across agencies and levels of government; and prioritisation of other developmental goals at the cost of the environment” [p.198]. The air pollution crisis is unique in India so the solutions will also have to be unique in nature. Some of the very general, yet unique, solutions have been mentioned in the last chapter of the book.

Finally, the author also offers important recommendations for each sector in India that silently contribute to the air pollution crisis in our country.

* (Author: Md Mashhood Alam is a research Scholar at MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi)


[1Tilt, Bryan, “China’s air pollution crisis: Science and policy perspectives.” Environmental Science and Policy 92 (2019): p.275,
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1462901118313133

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