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Environmentalists Ask: Is India’s Government Making Bad Air Worse?

December 8, 2017

For example, under Mr. Modi, the percentage of industrial projects approved in wildlife habitats, which are often important green spaces that absorb carbon dioxide, has gone up significantly, to 73 percent from 45.5 percent. An adviser to Mr. Modi said speeding up approvals of commercial projects had helped India jump 30 places this year on the World Bank’s “ease of doing business” rankings, something foreign investors appreciated.

Every year in November, clouds of white smoke waft over New Delhi. This is from the billions of pounds of crop residue, like leaves and stalks, burned on farms in neighboring Punjab and Haryana to clear space for the next planting. Crop burning creates a quarter of Delhi’s air pollution in winter.

Several state governments have pleaded with the central government to support alternatives, such as transporting the residue to dairy farms for cows to eat. The cost would be around $200 million, less than a tenth of a percent of India’s $2 trillion economy. The central government has yet to agree.

Air pollution, which seems to be getting worse each year, has yet to ignite large protests. One reason is that the major political parties still see it as a fringe issue.

“In India, people are used to dealing with shortages of public goods through private means,” explained Pallavi Aiyar, the author of “Choked! Inside the World’s Most Polluted Cities.” “No electricity, get an inverter. No water, dig a tube well. No security, hire a guard.”

Indians call this the elite buyout: Those with means avoid substandard government services and move on.

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Environmentalists have tried to appeal to Mr. Modi’s interest in keeping India’s growth rates high by saying that air pollution is hurting the economy. They argue that images of Delhi’s smog clouds — and vomiting cricket players — will scare off investors. The World Bank estimates that air pollution is costing India at least $55 billion a year, probably more.

But some professionals have given up.

Vinay Kesari, a lawyer, recently left Delhi for Bangalore with his pregnant wife.

“The deciding factor,” Mr. Kesari said, was “we didn’t want our child’s first breath to be drawn in Delhi.”

Follow Jeffrey Gettleman, Kai Schultz and Hari Kumar on Twitter: @gettleman, @Kai_Schultz and @HariNYT.

Ayesha Venkataraman contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on December 9, 2017, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: As Smog Chokes India, Critics Ask if Modi’s Policies Harm the Air. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|Subscribe

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