By the end of this month, 900 million voters in the 3rd largest economy in the world will have elected a new government. A long and vigorous campaign season has touched upon a myriad concerns: terrorism, jobs, corruption, religious conflict, and even the uniquely Indian debate about policy initiatives for the benefit of cows. One issue that has been notably absence is air pollution.
At one level, this seems astonishing. More than 400 million people live in the Indo-Gangetic plains, the heartland of India and the most densely populated part of the world. The Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), developed by economists at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, tells us that people in this part of India die 4 to 6 years earlier because of pollution. Yet oddly enough, neither the voters lining up for hours at polling booths, nor politicians on the dusty campaign trail, have paid much attention to the air they breathe. It is worth considering why.
Political pressure to act is created for a couple reasons. When a social problem is viewed as the consequence of the failure of one political party, it is likely to become part of an election campaign. Unemployment has been at the heart of opposition speeches across the country this election season. Alternatively, some issues are guaranteed to motivate the base and therefore always discussed. Thus terrorism and national security have been central to debate in the media, and diatribes on the campaign trail.
The challenge with air pollution is that although everyone is hurt by it, it is regarded as nobody’s fault, making it rarely an important factor motivating voters. Unsurprisingly, cleaning the air has never been a political promise in India. Consequently, it is judges, not elected representatives, who have driven a disproportionate number of policy actions—from ordering factories to close down to demanding wholesale shifts in the fuels used for public transportation. This is unsustainable because regardless of the merits of judicial orders, only executive and legislative efforts can produce long-term solutions.
A somewhat fatalistic view of things is that poor countries clean up the air after more important problems have been resolved. The so-called environmental “Kuznets curve”—pollution rises with wealth until a certain level of development, and thereafter falls—is consistent with this story. We should not be pleased if this becomes the story of India, because the science makes it almost certain that there are vast and hidden costs to human health and productivity, such that cleaning the air is likely to be a catalyst for growth, not an obstacle. So how might we make pollution matter for elections?…