Fourteen of the world’s 20 cities with highest air pollution are in India, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) last ranking. Why is this the case, when India has set pollution limits and stipulated strict criminal punishments to enforce them?

One reason is that rules are only effective when people follow them. Several studies have shown that there are wide gaps between what regulation says on paper and how industry and the public act on the ground. Indeed, our research suggests that if India met its own air pollution standards, life expectancy in India could increase by almost 1.5 years on average, and if the country met the WHO’s standards, that number goes up to roughly 4 years.

How can we improve matters?

The shortcomings of regulation

First of all, let’s look at why regulations have failed to bring pollution levels down to the standard. Typically, environmental regulation in India relies on an inflexible set of rules, which does not seem to work well in practice. Despite the threat of harsh punishments, factories we tested in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Orissa over the course of several years exceeded emission limits over half of the time. Similarly, a study by the Central Pollution Control Board found that vehicle testing centres in Delhi were often inaccurate, suggesting that certification for cars may not mean much…