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Environmentalists ask if India’s government is making bad air worse

NEW DELHI >> As millions of Indians watched a televised cricket match this week between the national teams of India and Sri Lanka, the game suddenly stopped.

The pollution in New Delhi is especially bad right now, and one of the Sri Lankan players could barely breathe. He leaned over, put his hands on his knees and started throwing up on live television.

The Sri Lankan cricketers were clearly not ready for New Delhi’s foul air, which this week contained 22 times the level of hazardous particles that the World Health Organization considers acceptable. It was an embarrassing moment for India, and the National Green Tribunal, India’s environmental court, chastised the local government for even holding the match.

“Every newspaper has been carrying headlines that the air pollution was going to be higher this week. Still you took no action. Even the players were playing the match wearing masks,” the court said. “Are the people of Delhi supposed to bear this?”

The bigger question might be: Why can’t India, which has made enormous strides fighting poverty and aspires to be a superpower, get a handle on its pollution?

The smog crisis cuts to the heart of India’s image abroad, it is stirring dissatisfaction against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it is a drag on the economy and, according to a new UNICEF report, it might be permanently damaging children’s brains.

India’s environmentalists acknowledge that air pollution is a multiheaded monster with many causes. But they argue not only that Modi has failed to adequately respond, but that his business-friendly policies, like loosening rules on construction sites, have made a toxic air problem even worse.

“Environment regulations are being diluted to promote the ease of doing business,” said Prerna Bindra, a wildlife conservationist. “Green concerns are not reflected in India’s growth story. In some cities, we draw in poison with every breath we take.”

In early November, the smog in New Delhi became so thick that you couldn’t see the end of the block. United Airlines canceled flights for several days, and the authorities shut down schools. People flooded into hospitals with nasty coughs. Some said it felt as if fingers were closing around their throats.

This time of year, as winter sets in, is the worst. Diesel fumes, construction dust, emissions from coal plants and smoke from huge swaths of crops being burned combine to form a smog blanket, thickened by the relatively cool and still air.

Some of Modi’s team have been quick to seize on the seasonal factor. The environment minister, Harsh Vardhan, reassured the public the problem would clear up once the winds starting blowing.

Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of the state of Delhi (a position like a governor), had a totally different take: He said Delhi had turned into a “gas chamber.”

This is another issue. The different layers of India’s government — and there’s a dizzying number — are constantly undermining each other, and air pollution keeps seeping through the cracks.

“Ninety-nine percent of this is lack of coordination,” said Salman Khurshid, a former minister and member of India’s leading opposition party. “The central government can only talk, it can’t do anything.”

But environmentalists say Modi isn’t even talking. He has been strangely quiet when it comes to the dirty air he himself breathes. In November and again this week, Indian news channels ran little red meters on screen showing air quality sinking to anxiety-producing levels. As officials across various layers of Indian government scrambled to respond, Modi didn’t say — or tweet, which is how he often communicates — a word about it.

Instead, he sent out messages on entirely different subjects ranging from meeting Prince Charles to Chennai’s “rich musical tradition.”

“There is complete silence from the prime minister,” said Gauri Rao, a member of a new advocacy group called My Right To Breathe. “The one person who can change it is quiet.”

Modi is hardly shy. He has taken the lead on other public health issues, such as his signature toilet-building campaign, with his face on billboards everywhere.

An adviser gave the impression that the prime minister was not more engaged because the central government considered air pollution a problem for just a couple of weeks a year, and a Delhi-centric one at that.

But the city’s air quality is poor for most of the year. And it is not just New Delhi: Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Lucknow, Agra, Ahmadabad and Hyderabad have all suffered levels more than six times what the World Health Organization considers safe.

In 2015, pollution was linked to 2.5 million deaths in India, the medical journal The Lancet said. The new UNICEF report says that high levels of air pollution can cause neuroinflammation, damaging cognitive development in young children.

Many outside observers compare India and China, two Asian heavyweights struggling to find a balance between expanding their economies as quickly as possible while not ruining the environment. China has been faster to slap down fines and criminal charges.

But India has never been able to boss around its people like China does. India’s political system is much freer — and messier: a decentralized democracy covering 1.3 billion people cut through with all sorts of regional and political rivalries. Indian officials rarely line up behind one set of policies, even when it comes to an enormous public health problem.

On Nov. 8, after NASA satellite imagery showed a huge smog smudge swallowing northern India, what did the chief ministers of Delhi and Punjab do? Did they rush to meet the prime minister? No, they started tweeting each other.

“Del is choking sir,” Kejriwal posted.

“Not a matter for interstate discussion,” his cohort in Punjab, Amarinder Singh, replied.

A week later, Kejriwal tweeted: “Would be grateful if u cud spare sometime to meet me.”

The two still haven’t met.

Indian environmentalists have a long list of complaints: They say Modi should be stepping in more to provide leadership on air pollution. They say his administration’s decision to eliminate environmental impact assessments for most construction projects has led to more dust, a significant contributor to Delhi’s air pollution.

They also complain that his government has failed to enforce restrictions on coal-fired power plants and granted approvals for new ones (including near Delhi). Coal is one of the dirtiest fuels.

Modi’s advisers are quick to fire back, arguing that they are pushing solar energy, cracking down on truck traffic and setting up a task force.

But they don’t hide from the fact that they are continuing a decadeslong process of liberalizing India’s economy to help it grow. They argue that India has plenty of strong environmental rules — too many, actually. What environmentalists see as trouble, they see as progress.

For example, under Modi, the percentage of industrial projects approved in wildlife habitats, which are often important green spaces that absorb carbon dioxide, has gone up significantly, to 73 percent from 45.5 percent. An adviser to Modi said speeding up approvals of commercial projects had helped India jump 30 places this year on the World Bank’s “ease of doing business” rankings, something foreign investors appreciated.

Every year in November, clouds of white smoke waft over New Delhi. This is from the billions of pounds of crop residue (like leaves and stalks) burned on farms in neighboring Punjab and Haryana to clear space for the next planting. Crop burning creates a quarter of Delhi’s air pollution in winter.

Several state governments have pleaded with the central government to support alternatives, such as transporting the residue to dairy farms for cows to eat. The cost would be around $200 million, less than a tenth of a percent of India’s $2 trillion economy. The central government has yet to agree.

Air pollution, which seems to be getting worse each year, has yet to ignite large protests. One reason is that the major political parties still see it as a fringe issue.

“In India, people are used to dealing with shortages of public goods through private means,” explained Pallavi Aiyar, the author of “Choked! Inside the World’s Most Polluted Cities.” “No electricity, get an inverter. No water, dig a tube well. No security, hire a guard.”

Indians call this the “elite buyout”: Those with means avoid substandard government services and move on.

Environmentalists have tried to appeal to Modi’s interest in keeping India’s growth rates high by saying that air pollution is hurting the economy. They argue that images of Delhi’s smog clouds — and vomiting cricket players — will scare off investors. The World Bank estimates that air pollution is costing India at least $55 billion a year, probably more.

Some professionals have given up.

Vinay Kesari, a lawyer, recently left Delhi for Bangalore with his pregnant wife.

“The deciding factor,” Kesari said, was “we didn’t want our child’s first breath to be drawn in Delhi.”

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