Reputation worries may have led India to choke air quality deal with Obama

Children using handkerchiefs to cover their faces during the smog.
School students use handkerchiefs to cover their faces in Delhi | PTI Photo

The bilateral agreement to tackle air pollution in Indian cities gathers dust as New Delhi is thought to be worried about damage to the country’s image.

New Delhi: A nearly three-year-old American proposal to help improve the quality of air in Indian cities has been gathering dust in the central government even as the national capital Delhi and its neighbouring states indulge in a blame-game over the smog crisis that has choked the region and struggle for a solution.

The two countries had pledged to cooperate on climate change, clean energy and energy security when President Barack Obama visited New Delhi in January 2015 and ‘Advancing Air Quality Cooperation’ was a key component of this plan.

It was agreed that “the two countries will work to reduce urban population exposure to air pollution by disseminating information through the AirNow International programme, which should enable urban policy planners to improve air quality in cities”.

It was also decided that the US-based Environment Protection Agency would engage with India “to support science-based air pollution control strategies in Indian cities”.

But nearly three years later, the agreement that focussed strongly on better air quality monitoring finds no mention in the central government’s action plan to tackle air pollution. In fact, there is a studied silence on the issue.

While the Environment ministry did not respond to queries from ThePrint, informed sources said that the “final terms” of the agreement could not be decided upon and it is still work in progress.

But researchers and experts in the know told ThePrint the reasons may be more political than technical and that the Centre possibly wants to play down an issue it feels damages India’s image. They pointed to comments by Environment minister Dr Harsh Vardhan who in a recent interview said that there was no need for ‘panic’ and the smog blanket was not lethal.

A senior official in the US State Department told this reporter during a recent visit to Washington that there has not been as much progress on the 2015 Modi-Obama announcement on air quality as they had expected.

Some of the tools developed by AirNow – an organisation that helps countries across the globe generate public awareness about the quality of air they breathe — could have been deployed in India but the initiative did not come through.

The official agreed that there was considerable “back and forth” on the subject. While the US has been organising some study tours to India, the official conceded that “the follow through has been difficult”.

Experts associated with the 2015 US-India dialogue expressed disappointment over the slow pace of progress on an initiative that could have helped find tools to address the bad air problem.

Also read: Create India-Pak treaty on air pollution

Dr Laki Tisopulos, assistant deputy executive officer of Los Angles’ South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), who visited India last year as part of a US group advising on air quality, told ThePrint that while there was all-round agreement that the air pollution problem needed to be addressed, there was also visible governmental reluctance to move ahead on the collaboration.

India’s reluctance became apparent in 2014-15 when the first response of the environment ministry – then under Prakash Javadekar – was denial when WHO data showed serious air pollution concerns across Indian cities.

Paryavaran Bhawan was also startled when the US embassy installed air quality monitoring systems on its premises and put out details of Delhi’s dipping air quality on its website.

The government had then said that a narrative was being built around the whole issue by people with vested interests and the aim was to tarnish India’s image.

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