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Obama: No More Special Treatment for Mr. Modi and India

The U.S. finally announces the installation of an Air Quality Monitor in Delhi – as it did in Beijing in 2008.

February 28, 2015

One of the biggest successes that the U.S. government has scored in recent decades in the battle over transparency in China was the installation of an air quality monitor on the U.S. Embassy compound in Beijing’s Chaoyang district in 2008. It began publishing readings on the web in 2009. And when developers began releasing smartphone apps displaying the embassy’s data, that only added to the sizzle.

Initially, this move might have been intended as a self-defense measure, to help U.S. embassy staff serving in Beijing figure out when it is safe to venture outside — and when not.

But the apps soon took the world by storm. For anybody truly global-minded, it became cool to install on one’s smartphone. Beyond Beijing, it is now available for other key Chinese cities, where U.S. consulates have monitors installed.

As of 2013, Beijing experienced 60 days (or 16% of the year) at emergency levels of unsafe air pollution — some days so high they were off the safety measurement charts. Other Chinese cities fared even worse.

Contrary to what one would have suspected, establishing this transparency tool has not been seen – as it would have been judged in the past – as an unfriendly act by a hostile capitalist power.

To be sure, for diplomatic reasons, Chinese officials have officially protested that publishing the data is an unlawful interference in the country’s domestic affairs. But policymakers also realize that they do have a real problem on their hands with all that air pollution.

Treat Delhi like Beijing?

For a long time, it was a sensitive diplomatic question whether the United States would endeavor to bring similar focus on air pollution to India. The Obama Administration has just now decided to do so. And that is a good thing, even though the move has been timed obviously to come out at the end of a prolonged U.S.-India “love fest” after Narendra Modi’s election.

After many years of never ending reams of news stories about how bad the air in China’s capital (and other cities) really is, the world has only recently started hearing that air pollution in Indian cities is actually worse — and has been so for some time.

For example, the World Health Organization recently declared the top four most air-polluted cities in the world to be in India. The worst offender in the world is not Beijing after all, but rather India’s capital, New Delhi.

Obscuring India’s smog

Although experts had known this for a while, the world and local media continued to focus on Beijing’s smog. For all the criticism of how the Chinese government has handled or reported the pollution levels, they did admit its existence and did attempt to measure it.

TG Beijing air quality

In astonishing contrast, the people of the world’s largest democracy — India — have been kept in the dark about air pollution by their own government, as they have about so many other matters.

Indian citizens and global travelers alike trusted the India government’s happy public relations campaign about more trees being planted in Delhi and the like.

To keep their own government on its toes and focused on protecting public health, Indians should welcome the U.S. government installing monitors like those in China.

The U.S. State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency have announced that the United States will place air-quality monitors outside embassies in numerous foreign cities, starting with diplomatic posts in India and then moving to Vietnam, Mongolia and other countries.

Will the (new) Indian government welcome that move? Or will Mr. Modi, if the United States were to proceed with this idea, do what the Chinese have done – consider it an unfriendly act?

Of course, in light of the Snowden revelations on NSA activities – one of which was that India was the 5th largest collection source country of the United States’ NSA surveillance – such a monitor will generate suspicion. Some may even suspect the air monitor of being an NSA listening post or cyber weapon.

India’s government needs a daily reminder

After all, India’s government – for all its voluminous size – has shown that it lacks the foresight, analysis and planning capacity to deal with such “invisible” challenges as air pollution.

In order to create a real marker against which to measure progress, it should be most welcome for the U.S. government to treat India the same way it treats China.

Even Chinese leaders are fully aware that this measurement system, painful though it is for them, contains a key metric that they must not just address, but also resolve in order to preserve their own power.

A nation whose people get suffocated is never a pleasant prospect for anyone on the inside. It’s not only a terrible long-term growth strategy, and not just in terms of stunted growth of children and other such effects. It’s also a real problem with regard to keeping the population from getting politically restless.

In China at least, that genie is now out of the bottle. In India, even the awareness of the issue is still only emerging.

Some progress

The current situation is all the more troubling as India, where the manufacturing sector only has a 16% share of GDP (compared to 32% in China), is still trying to expand that part of its economy.

Some positive steps have been taken. In New Delhi, for example, many vehicles have been converted to use CNG fuel since a groundbreaking Supreme Court ruling in 1998.

However, as positive as that sounds, the grim reality is that so far only commercial vehicles have been converted, leaving the private vehicles (a vast majority) to continue burning pollutant-heavy fuel.

Wealthy enough to care?

It is generally considered that a nation can afford to care about the environment when it passes the $5,000 per capita income threshold. At a per capita GDP of only just over $4,000 per year (on a PPP basis), India is still below that level. China, for its part, is at almost $10,000 a year, according to IMF figures.

But regardless of income statistics, India has already reached dangerously high pollution levels from its development. Tens of millions of people living in India’s big cities day in and day out have been played for fools.

As a true friend of India’s people – and a supporter of transparency – the U.S. announcement to install monitors in India should be welcomed by all, even if it means making the government uncomfortable. If the Chinese Communist Party learned to see its value, so can the leaders of the world’s largest democracy.


Air pollution in Indian cities is actually worse than in Chinese cities – and has been for some time.

India has reached dangerously high air pollution from development, while still far behind China’s growth.

India faces a tremendous pollution problem, but it could gain from US air monitors -- just as China did.

Air monitors in India will hold the government there accountable for the air pollution besetting the nation.

One of the biggest successes for transparency in China is the US installation of an air quality monitor.