The clock is ticking fast. India’s air pollution crisis is taking an incalculable toll on public health and economic growth, and will likely exhibit much worse manifestations in times to come. Large number of credible studies have tried to quantify the impact of air pollution. According to a study by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT, Bombay), the estimated total cumulative economic cost for Delhi alone by 2015 was $6.4 billion.[i] In 2017, poor air quality led to 1.2 million deaths in the country.[ii]There is a long list of air quality related indicators, all of which paint a grim picture. And this is only as far as the quantifications have been possible. There are many long-term adverse impacts which we have not captured yet. For example, we still don’t have an index quantifying the extent to which the cognitive abilities of Indian children are impacted if they grow up amidst air pollution. Similarly, we have not yet been able to capture the cascading impacts of death or loss of productivity of a person due to air pollution on dependents of his/her family. However, what we are certain about is that the demon that is air pollution, can only turn out to be bigger than we have imagined thus far.  Why then is Air Pollution not treated with the urgency of an epidemic? Why aren’t actions on part of the government as well as people justifying the impacts we are already experiencing? Why is the story nearly the same year after year?

In the recent years, efforts have been made towards tackling the issue. However, they are not creating a dent because the scale of efforts is extremely small vis-à-vis the need, and whatever little is happening lacks efficacy. 

The book, The Great Smog of India, noted that more people in India die due to air pollution in a week than total casualties in India-Pakistan wars since independence[iii]. If this is the magnitude of the problem, efforts to combat it should have turned into a movement by now. This is where the scale of efforts falls far behind that of the problem. It has taken a few years to build up the level of discourse that we see around air pollution now, but that too is correlated with events such as a spike in the air quality index. Talking about the efficacy of policies to curb air pollution, much of these efforts lack efficiency. Case in point, the apex court’s last-minute decision in 2017 and 2018 to put a ban on fire-crackers in Delhi could have been enforced better had it come a little sooner.

One common factor contributing to limitations noted above is public not playing an active participatory role in these efforts. In order to understand this aspect better, EnvEcologic – which is a premier, fast growing team of Sustainabiltiy & Energy Economist  recently conducted an extensive survey in Delhi, covering over 5,000 respondents spread across the nine districts of the city. Following interesting inferences emerged from the survey:

  • 35% of respondents aren’t convinced that air pollution in Delhi is an emergency. This includes 75% of those with children less than 10 years of age. In fact, 20% of all respondents feel the narrative built around it is over-hyped.
  • Nearly 60% respondents aren’t convinced that indoor air pollution is a problem in cities and feel that it is less harmful than outdoor air pollution.
  • More than 50% respondents are unaware of the ban on garbage burning and that it attracts a penalty of Rs 5,000.

These results are a clear indication of lack of awareness among the residents of the city regarding regulations aimed at curbing air pollution and its health impacts.

Another vital insight with respect to perceived ease of compliance of various air pollution centric policies indicates that the technically ‘best sounding’ policy may not always reverberate with the public, and is thus likelier to fail. For example, nearly 40% respondents confessed their unwillingness to abide by the odd-even policy and over 24% respondents expressed unwillingness to switch from diesel cars to more eco-friendly options. 

As a norm, the ‘command and control’ approach has been adopted by Indian policy makers to deal with most large-scale problems such as the air pollution issue. However, in order to succeed at curbing this menace at the national level, the government has to go much beyond merely making policies and expecting the public to tow the line. Some aspects which need to be considered specifically are:

  • Pre-determine public’s understanding of the existing problem. Spread awareness about the impact on health and general well-being.
  • Take initiatives wherever possible to predetermine public’s response to a potential regulation, and in case it’s not viewed favourably, find out the reasons to understand why they responded in a particular way.
  • Step up efforts to educate people about the existing regulations and the rationale behind them. Scale up communication channels multi-fold to ensure that campaigns around air pollution become as popular as those around certain other public welfare campaigns such as those for polio eradication and Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan.

Ploughing the field well for better yield is an ideal analogy to explain the much-required-yet-missing efforts to work closely with people right from the stage of conceiving policies to enforcing them. This is to ensure that we don’t just make the top-down efforts more effective but also sensitize masses for a productive bottom-up contribution as well.

[i] Maji, Kamal Jyoti et al. “Disability-adjusted life years and economic cost assessment of the health effects related to PM2.5 and PM10 pollution in Mumbai and Delhi, in India from 1991 to 2015”

Environmental Science & Pollution Research (2017),


[iii] Singh, Siddharth. The Great Smog of India (Penguin Random House, 2018), 5.

Note: This article, written by Alok Raj Gupta, Founder & CEO, Envecologic, was originally published by the Observer Research Foundation and can be accessed here