Over the last century, anxious environmentalists photographed Los Angeles. The vast city built around the automobile was the first target of conscientious environmentalism. Its beautiful landscape was disfigured by a layer of black air hanging over the city. Landing at any of its numerous airports, you realized the clear contrast between the purity of the desert and the dark patina that loomed over the palm trees and the shores of the Pacific. A famous study in 2004 revealed that children growing up in the most polluted neighborhoods were much more likely to suffer chronic reduced lung function, with all the diseases associated with that diagnosis.
And yet the air in the Californian metropolis today is incomparably better than in New Delhi, whose air quality index has rivaled Beijing’s in the 21 century. The interminable lines of cars, city-center smokestacks, carbon stoves heating homes and desert sandstorms are recurring images.
And yet the air quality in Beijing is much better than in New Delhi, where the levels of particles most dangerous to human lungs, PM 2.5, are two times higher than in China’s capital, the World Health Organization recently reported. Its findings are even more pitiless with regard to the whole country: more than half of the most polluted cities in the world (13 out of 25) are in India. Lanzhou is the only Chinese city in the top 50; Beijing is in 79th place.
The problem for Los Angeles and Beijing was and is undoubtedly serious, but in India it’s tragic. The negligence becomes even more serious if the analysis is expanded to causes of atmospheric pollution. In fact, it’s not attributable to industrial development as much as social. It’s easy to blame factories, but the lack of a sewer system, a reasonable waste collection program and adequate sanitary system are equally to blame. Half of India’s population – 600 million people – relieve themselves in the open air. Residential density in big cities goes hand-in-hand with animals and poor hygienic conditions, and waste is incinerated. The lack of potable water combined with a hot climate accentuates the problem.
The relative indifference to this dramatic problem is striking. Maybe India is resigned to the problem or maybe it is not deemed a worthy target of the government’s resources. The bitter conclusion is that underdevelopment is not only tragic, but also toxic.