It’s a good time to read Siddharth Singh’s The Great Smog of India. As in previous years, large parts of the country are inhaling hazardous air. This will kill about 1.2 million Indians this year too.
Fortunately, Singh’s book is not as gloomy as my opening lines-and that’s possibly because as a policy wonk working on energy and climate change, he seeks solutions. Such a dispassionate approach, seeking a silver lining amid the acrid smog, makes his book valuable.
The Great Smog of India tells us a few home truths. First, that perfect data is not needed, so let’s not wait for it. We have enough information to act decisively. Second, other countries have managed to salvage an equally gloomy situation with firm but smart action. And third, that air pollution-and some of its individual solutions-exacerbate inequality. To simplify his nuanced case, using electric vehicles may clean up one city, but if it is coal that powers the electricity, pollution will be externalised.
Singh goes to the root of each key challenge he identifies as contributing to muddying the air. He examines geography, mobility, energy, agriculture, governance, manufacturing and construction-almost all the factors that make the air toxic. Often, he brings in global histories to contextualise the challenge. I found the case of electric vehicles in the US fascinating. Did you know that in 1900, a third of all cars produced in that country were electric? That trend was crushed by the Ford Model T, the first mass-produced car with an internal combustion engine in an era when plenty of oil was available.
The story of Indian agriculture from the 1950s is instructive, too. Singh pulls in the interface between early agricultural policy to address hunger in a newly independent nation, ecological considerations about groundwater, and today’s stubble burning. These recent histories are important to build a public perspective. It is important that these be written about with authority, because otherwise they remain disaggregated oral history and fail to carry the credibility they ought to. As one who knows some (but not all) of these histories, I was delighted to find how well these were referenced. Building on this, Singh looks at national and local policy impacts and the lessons global solutions hold for India in 2018.
Most thematic chapters compete with each other to inform. However, the chapter, ‘Made in India’, was disappointing-it didn’t carry the ‘big thinking’ of the rest. While Singh explores manufacturing and the success of the PAT (Perform, Achieve, Trade scheme of the Bureau of Energy Efficiency), the issue of the informal industries-significant in India-is absent. I’d also have liked to hear about current thoughts on clean production and the circular economy.
I was struck by the book on a personal level too. I wheezed my way through the pollution of the late 1980s and 1990s. I could never run or play sports. I was rarely allowed ice-cream. My constant companion was a Ventolin inhaler. My childhood played out in an era before asthma became an epidemic, so it was hard even for my talkative self to share with anyone the isolating, scary space I inhabited several times a year. My otherwise rational parents were so fed up of my respiratory miseries that they dragged me at age 11 to pop in the famous fish of Hyderabad, believed to cure such ailments. Reading The Great Smog of India as an older person, who fights both air pollution and asthma, I caught myself tearing up a few times. Not for myself, but at the thought that all these years later, many, many more children live-and even die-in that isolated space where your mind watches your de-oxygenated body fight for another chance.
That’s why I especially value that Singh uses his data with flair to exhort us to panic. To push the government to act, because only governments can move things at the scale we need today. He doesn’t say it, but he alludes to it-neglecting air pollution will put us on the path of becoming a failed state.