NEW DELHI, India — Weaving through traffic in central New Delhi, Bharat Singh takes his hand off the throttle of his sputtering, three-wheeled rickshaw — India's cheap alternative to a taxi — and coughs into his fist.
“By the time evening comes around, I'm coughing like crazy and my eyes are red and burning,” he says, speaking Hindi.
“I can't get to sleep because of the headaches, and when I finally do fall asleep, my coughing wakes me up again.”
Gaunt and rheumy eyed, the 20-year veteran of New Delhi's congested roads is not alone.
Near daily stats show that the air in India's capital is far more polluted than in Beijing, where a public outcry prompted the government to shut down factories and restrict the use of cars. And in New Delhi, rickshaw drivers, traffic cops and the underclass that travels by bus and bicycle are the worst affected, according to one new study.
But New Delhi’s problem might not be a lack of strict regulation. Instead, its overly harsh penalties for polluting the air could actually be to blame.
The 1981 air pollution control act — India's answer to America's 1963 Clean Air Act — gives regulators the power to ban dirty fuels, cut off water and electricity to factories and bring criminal charges against violators. But there's no provision allowing them to levy fines. The harsh measures at regulators' disposal are viewed as “nuclear options” and rarely used.
“Clearly, criminal liability is not working,” says Shibani Ghosh, an environmental lawyer at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, an independent think tank.
“We certainly need to have criminal penalties for more egregious violations of the law. But criminal penalties also come with a higher evidentiary burden, because charges have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Without question, the results are disastrous.
In May last year, a World Health Organization study found Delhi to have the world's worst air pollution, based on the amount of floating particular — the superfine, microscopic particles that cause the worst damage to the lungs — in the city’s air. The Indian capital averaged 153 micrograms per cubic meter in 2013, compared with about 90 in Beijing.
As a point of reference, the US National Ambient Air Quality Standard is 12 micrograms per cubic meter.
For rickshaw drivers like Singh, living in Delhi means 12- to 16-hour days inhaling microscopic brick dust and other hazardous pollutants, such as lead and arsenic from diesel exhaust.
Worse still, while conducting a real-time study of air quality on the city’s roads, bus platforms and metro stations, the Center for Science and Environment found that levels in heavy-traffic areas were routinely two to four times higher than the average reported by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee. In one congested corner during rush hour, the levels of floating particular exceeded 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter.
Delhi's pollution problem is the most infamous, but it's by no means unique in the country. India accounted for a full 11 out of the worst 20 cities in the WHO study — with deadly consequences.
In 2010, a Global Burden of Disease study estimated that 627,000 Indians died prematurely due to outdoor air pollution (with the indoor variety a separate scourge), and experts fear that number could double or triple by 2030.
With statistics like those, the impulse is to treat polluters harshly. But, as it turns out, allowing violators to pay their way out of trouble — rather than mandating jail time — could be more effective, according to research by economists from the University of Chicago, Harvard and Yale.
“Criminal penalties are very expensive to enforce,” said Anant Sudarshan, one of the study's authors, and the head of the India division of the University of Chicago's Energy Policy Institute at Chicago.
“You have to file a case and win that case, and that can drag on for years. And [criminal penalties] can be too severe for minor infringements.”
The problem is that while India mandates expensive pollution control standards for industry, it fails to enforce those standards because its regulators cannot don't have the legal expertise — or endurance — to send violators to jail, Sudarshan's colleagues Michael Greenstone and Rohini Pande wrote in a recent op-ed for the New York Times.
Instead, they argue, India should follow the method that the US government used to fight acid rain in the 1980s. The United States implemented a “cap and trade” system, which creates financial incentives for industry to clean up its act — including stiff fines for exceeding norms.
Apart from making regulators less reluctant to penalize violators by giving them smaller bullets, such a system would also make companies themselves less likely to skirt the rules, Sudarshan said. Now, the regulators set a pollution norm and every factory has to meet it — it’s the same standard for a sponge iron producer spending $20 million and a garment maker spending $20,000. In contrast, cap-and-trade would let companies for whom reducing pollution is prohibitively expensive buy credits from firms in other industries.
“If you set limits on every plant individually, often those limits can be too expensive for some plants and too lenient for others,” Sudarshan said. “So command-and-control tends to enforce costs that are too high, which makes them more likely to be violated.”
That said, in other areas, such as traffic policing, India's regulators view fines as an opportunity to pocket 10 percent in exchange for looking the other way. So it's not hard to understand the skepticism of the average rickshaw driver.
“I don't think anything can improve matters,” Singh said.
Even the much-vaunted Delhi Metro hasn't made a dent, he argued. The new stations underway all over the city, he said, seem to have more than made up for any reduction in car commuters with an increase in construction dust and traffic snarls.
“You just sit there in the traffic jam breathing in the poison,” he said.