A few weeks back, Prakash Javadekar, the Union environment minister, made an interesting comment: he said no Indian study has shown that pollution shortens lifespan and therefore we should not scare people. For us environment enthusiasts, the statement provokes a head-scratching bewilderment but we need to spare a thought from the minister’s perspective.
In the 1890s, germ theory successfully established the link between the newly discovered lifeforms called viruses and the diseases they cause. Researchers soon discovered that bad sanitation, among other conditions, is very conducive to pathogens. In fact, thought it may sound amusing, people lacked the knowledge to criticise dirty spaces for their links to diseases. They looked at dirty neighbourhoods only as a source of bad smell and as a form of visual disgust. The pioneering work of scientists like Louis Pasteur, Dmitry Ivanovsky and Robert Koch set the record straight by establishing germ theory and thus the relationship between germs and diseases.
As a result, scientific research laid the ground for a progressive politics of sanitation and eventually led to western societies’ transition towards clean living. This script is now playing out identically in the realm of climate change, motivating the West’s scientists to undertake research on hypotheses on a variety of issues other than those strictly limited to climate change. Such efforts have in turn contributed to the fight against climate skepticism, stirred debates and built political consensus at a pleasantly accelerated rate.
So, whether it’s from the perspective of germ theory or of the science of climate change, the role of scientific research in shaping the political agenda surrounding air pollution can’t be overstated.
Then again, pollution in India is a layered and somewhat different beast when compared to the one in the West. While developed economies have managed to formalise and clean themselves, their choices with respect to food, daily conveniences, transportation and energy have adversely and disproportionately affected the planet. Therefore, the science and the politics of climate change in these economies are currently aimed at correcting these mistakes.
India’s pollution challenge is currently exacerbated more by the informality of urbanisation and economic development, and less by individual consumption choices. India’s per capita consumption of plastic is far lower than that of the industrialised nations. But whatever plastic Indians consume ends up choking our sewers and soil because of our inability to collect it after its use. The same argument also applies to crop-burning, e-waste processing, construction waste, and untreated industrial and medical effluents released in water bodies.
Every such discharge demands a scientific investigation for its impact on human lives in the form of disease and despair, for methods to harness the discharge and seek new ways to mitigate it. Such studies need to prove the causative link between air pollution in cities like Delhi and the way we dispose e-waste and other electronic junk elsewhere, between an unusual spike in the incidence of certain cancers cases in the vicinity of the Hindon river and the industrial waste that finds its way into the water.
India needs scientific studies to prove that slums affect the urban ecology as well as provide suboptimal living conditions for a significant fraction of their residents. More broadly, India’s urban planning requires a framework that models our cities such that they can house all their residents without relegating any of them to slums – a feat the developed world achieved many decades ago.
Of course, international scholars can’t be expected to parachute into India and deploy resources to undertake scientific studies on such specific issues (even as they fight their own battles back home). Even if a few do conduct studies, the latter run the risk of being dismissed discredited for not being ‘Indian enough’, an arbitrary yet important barrier. This is perhaps why Javadekar seeks a homegrown vendor for guidance on pollution, no matter how obvious the conjuncture or foregone the conclusion.
The question then to ask is: Is the Indian scientific community ready for such a research agenda? The quality of scientific research papers published in leading environmental research journals likely serves as a good barometer, together with the number of citations.
If we examine the number of scientific papers on environmental science (plus related fields such as pollution, waste management, ecology, etc.) published between 1996 and 2018 (as indexed by Scimago) and rank the countries from where these papers were submitted on the number of citations per paper, India is at the 169th place out of 233 countries. But if we rank countries on the total number of research papers published in the same period, India ranks sixth – so clearly the quantity is not the issue.
It’s quite possible that India’s research output, submitted from the majority of our more mediocre institutions that can claim to pursue science in any form, pulls down India’s overall rank and penalises the better researchers and institutions. If that’s the case, then these better researchers and institutions will need to improve their research output further to overcome this drag and pass Javadekar’s acceptability filter at the same time.
So the country expects some gumption on Javadekar’s part to convince the Centre to fund such research (assuming there are no fully private Indian institutions that can produce such output) or on a state’s to seek independent funding. Either way, the ask will be to produce high-quality output that is impossible to ignore.
Navigating such vagaries requires imagination and grit that not only produces important studies but also shepherds Indian politics towards a new vision of sustainability and circular economy. It requires the caliber of the likes of Vikram Sarabhai or M.S. Swaminathan to create such an inspiring vision around the challenges of pollution, drives an influential research agenda, deploys capabilities to seek answers and communicates this vision as a desirable career choice among young minds.
Till such time, there is no reason Javadekar should accept an inference based thus far on conjecture and so unnecessarily needle the temperament of his government.
Ankur Bisen is the author of the book Wasted: The Messy Story of Sanitation in India, A Manifesto for Change, recently published and released by Pan MacMillan India. He is on Twitter a @AnkurBisen1.