Why India must rethink industries, tech

As I write this column, I can spot over a dozen Chinese men outside my hotel room in Beijing wearing air purifier masks on their faces - the price they paid for technology. It stirred some alarming thoughts about where India is heading, and why India has a need to rethink each of its steps towards technological advancement.

In this world of homogenisation, all metros seem the same, Berlin to Beijing - glittering malls, tall building, fast food, and speedy cars.

Beijing was also no different from Delhi except for Mandarin on its billboards. It provided me a glimpse of what Delhi could be in a few years from now high-speed metros, better-looking cars, better-looking buildings, cleaner, and orderly streets.

As high as my expectations were, from a country pioneering in technology, to be battling its pollution levels and other effects of technology, the country seemed to have lost equally bad in its struggle.

Living in Delhi, pollution was something which I could see around, but Beijing also got me to experience it. As soon as I stepped out of the airport, my nostrils flared up. Being asthmatic, I immediately found it difficult to breathe. Although there have been attempts from the Chinese government -- denying registrations to older cars and factories to fight their pollution monster, the issue seems to be not all that simple to settle easily.

Some of China’s pollution-fighting technologies earlier ran on coal-generated electricity. It thereby contributed to higher carbon emissions although air quality would get better - one form of technology to fight the dangers of another.

The result was the sight of a huge population donning air purifiers,  who were attempting to breathe cleaner air. Although these air purifiers could filter particulate contaminants in the air there is no evidence that these filters could help in long-term.

According to the US Department of State Air Quality Monitoring Program’s ‘Mission China’, the air quality index for Beijing on any average 24 hours of a day shows “unhealthy for sensitive groups” - nearly as unhealthy as smoking 40 cigarettes a day, as per a study.

The classic Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City shots at night that I sought as a tourist were rather hazy owing to the smog and were tough to crack them right.

The average PM2.5 levels figured between 101 and 150, as against the safe 0-50 level, and even touched the ‘”unhealthy” level (151-200) at night. These levels, according to the department, means “active children and adults, and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should limit prolonged outdoor exertion”.

India, which is still on its road to technological advancement, aims to replicate China. The “Make in India” initiative and the nation’s bid to attract Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) for its industries and businesses are examples of how India seeks to replicate the China model. But its capital city Delhi’s air pollution already has touched “hazardous” levels.

As per the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, the PM2.5 levels in Delhi’s air are always above the prescribed safe levels of 60 with an average of 100 units of particulate matter pollution in the air, reaching levels as high as 300 during winters. Delhi has bagged the spot of its competitor Beijing, which was considered to be the most polluted city for long.

According to a World Health Organization study last year the concentration of PM2.5 was higher in Delhi than in Beijing, proving Delhi to have the filthiest air in the world.

Shouldn’t these be indicators for India to rethink technology, industries?
Beijing has now assumed its path of green energy. Moreover, the city has shut some of its conventional coal-run industries, electricity out of coal to adopt gas-run methods and other non-conventional methods and has improved its air quality much better than before.

It was a much-needed move for Beijing, to promote cleaner means of transportation. A simple move to have an “only bicycle” track has helped Beijing a lot - persuading many to use their bicycles or electric bikes. On many days, I witnessed more bicycles than cars on the road, a solution Delhi sorely needs.

Numerous studies on Delhi have brought out the horrific angles involved with the city’s pollution. The most recent study by the University of Surrey shows that Delhi’s air is a “toxic blend” of geography, poor energy resources and unfavourable weather that dangerously “boosts” its pollution. Delhi, I hope you’re listening.

(Views expressed are strictly personal)
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