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Croaking in a Well

Dunu Roy

Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 444, price not stated.


The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has acquired a formidable reputation in environmental matters. Hence, their 2006 offering, ‘The Leapfrog Factor, Clearing the Air in Asian Cities’, is bound to arouse enormous interest and appreciation. The book is actually based on a conference of the same title organised by CSE in 2004, and borrows its name from CSE’s study of degrading environments as a consequence of rapid industrialization and it’s assessment that ‘answers will be in reinventing the growth model of the Western world for ourselves, so that we can leapfrog technology choices and find new ways of building wealth that will not cost us the earth’. In fact, this opening statement provides a good platform from which to critically review the contents of the book.   Chapter 1 recounts the key Delhi story, and hence this chapter requires a more detailed review. The chapter illustrates the ‘leapfrog’ factor by recounting that the capital city moved from 10,000 parts per million (ppm) to 500 ppm Sulphur in diesel, and from liquid to gaseous fuels in four years. This ‘leapfrogging’ is placed within the context of the status of air quality in the city in 1995, when total particulates (TSPM) were 7 to 17 times the permissible levels, Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) had gone up to 79% of the limits, Carbon Dioxide (CO2) was ‘threatening’, tiny particulates (PM10) were not being measured even though they were ‘deadliest’, and there was no awareness of toxic Poly Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH). Coincidentally, there was also published at that time a World Bank back-of-the envelope ‘study’ based on 1991-92 data that projected over 40,000 deaths in 36 cities due to air pollution. It was within this context that emissions control through tail pipe measurement struck Anil Agrawal, founder-director of CSE, as being ‘imbecilic’ and ‘not the key policy measure industrialized countries took to reduce air pollution’.   Based on this key observation, CSE published ‘Slow Murder’ in 1996, arguing that insufficient data and contradictory information about air pollution was creating considerable confusion, that there was significant political pressure from automobile manufacturers, and that pollution standards were being systematically watered down. The Supreme Court then issued suo moto notice based on this publication and merged the issue of air pollution into the existing M C Mehta case. Through 1997 CSE mounted the Clean Air Campaign and re-estimated the World Bank ‘model’ with 1995 data (computing that there had been a 30% increase in premature deaths), in order to build up a ...

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