More than half of India's population lives in highly polluted areas. Research by Greenstone et al (2015) proves that 660 million people live in areas that exceed the Indian Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for fine particulate pollution. In this context, having measures such as banning e-cigarettes and having odd-even days for vehicles to solve the problem of air pollution seems ridiculous, says Alex Tabarrok, Professor of Economics at the George Mason University and Research Fellow with the Mercatus Centre. "These are not appropriate solutions to the scale and the dimensions of the problem," he says.
Tabarrok was speaking on "The effects of air pollution on health and productivity" at The Brookings India. One of the reasons for such half-baked measures by the government is that while the impact of pollution doesn't take very long to develop, its effect is dispersed over the large population and it is poorly measured and even more poorly understood by the population. "The politics around pollution is very bad," he says.
What is important to understand is no one can escape bad air, whether it is the rich or the poor or people from urban or rural areas. The effects can be seen and felt already. It is not something that will impact future generations or people living in other countries. Current research has shown that pollution impacts mortality, stunts growth and IQ, reduces productivity, and improves risk of heart disease and cancer.
Spears et al (2009) shows that children born in a district in India at the time of above the average pollution were shorter than expected and had higher chances of health issues. It doesn't only affect health but also productivity. Research by Adhvaryu et al (2019) shows that higher the pollution levels in the Bangalore-based garment factory in India lower was the efficiency of employees.
It doesn't just impact blue collar work but also knowledge workers of a modern economy. An academic paper by China's leading travel agency Trip.com shows that the impact of pollution on white collar worker's productivity is similar. The company measured the performance of its call centre workers. They study shows that when the Air Pollution Index increased by 10 units, workers' calls per shift reduced by 0.35 per cent and also the minutes spent deceased by 0.25 per cent.
These workers are representative of employees in a modern economy or knowledge workers. "That means when there is a 50-point increase in API, the entire city has a reduction in productivity by 1.5 per cent. Considering cities today have millions of people, those are big numbers. This means that on high pollution days the entire city is less productive," says Tabarrok.
"These are current costs for the current generation. This is a much more compelling way to confront the cost of pollution, not just for future generations but for the children and elderly now," he says. This, he adds, will impact the overall health of the country and hence, its GDP. He gives the example of Sri Lanka (the only developing country for which data is available) where healthcare spending on diseases due to air pollution is already 7.4 per cent (Lancet commission).