Delhi’s air pollution could have a fix in behavioural economics

Don’t haze me.
Don’t haze me.
Image: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
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As the season turns, so does Delhi’s air. And with it comes the predictable assault on Delhiites’ lungs.

That Delhi has some of the worst air in the world is now a well-established fact and a part of the mainstream discourse. And yet, every year, the air quality index veers into the red zone and sends India’s north into emergency mode.

This phenomenon first made its way into mainstream headlines when former US president Barack Obama visited Delhi in 2015. It was said that three days in the city cost him six hours of his life. Other analogies include equating breathing Delhi’s air with smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

But in the five years since this conversation took centerstage, little has changed on the ground. Some blame Delhi’s vehicles, others the industries and thermal plants on its periphery, and others still its mounting solid waste disposal problem. Every year, around October, agricultural fires—burning fields before the next crop is readied—is added to the mix, and even made the central villain. And then comes the Hindu festivals of Dussehra and Diwali and the rampant firecrackers across India’s cities.

While various studies have thrown up different causes, a study by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), conducted between 2016 and 2017, attributed 23% of Delhi’s air woes to vehicular pollution, and only 6% to crop burning. This figure has been contentious and has varied from study to study, some labelling crop burning as the top cause of pollution.

It is also because crop burning is more visible—and thus, the onus of Delhi’s clean air falls on India’s distressed farmers. “The onus of environmentalism and good behaviour should not be on the poorest of the poor. Every other stakeholder, whether they are privileged citizens, and more importantly, the government, needs to show urgency and do more,” says Vimlendu Jha, environmentalist and founder of Swechha, a social development NGO in New Delhi.

Jha says that every winter season, it becomes fashionable to blame farmers, without understanding why they still burn stubble. “After all, they also pay for it through their lungs,” he says.

A way into this issue of fixing Delhi’s air pollution—and especially curtailing crop burning—is through the prism of market economics.

A classical economics problem

“The entire issue of global warming or cutting emissions can be looked at as the free-rider problem,” according to Jeevant Rampal, an economics professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

He cites the instance of climate change agreements and why it is so hard to get countries to sign on. “For instance, if country A can convince all other countries to cut emissions, then there is no need for country A to do so,” Rampal explains. In essence, country A can simply free ride on the efforts and expenditure of countries B, C, and D.

This free-rider problem ails most public good works. “This is the case with all public good like healthcare, parks, roads, and other infrastructure. Basically, if your getting clean air does not preclude me from getting it, therefore everyone has an incentive to say I don’t value it at all, and will not pay for it,” Rampal says. And the same could be theoretically said for farmers.

When the cost of not burning stubble is high—whether through adding manpower or buying expensive machinery that the farmer needs only 30-45 days in a year—there is no incentive to not burn stubble.

Stubble burning, for instance, is itself a consequence of the way India’s agriculture sector works. The country’s Green Revolution led to it becoming food surplus and exporting a majority of the rice it produces. This has pushed the cultivation season longer and leaves no time between the rice and wheat crop. The fastest and simplest option for farmers, then, is to burn the stubble.

Another factor in stubble burning is that in order to conserve groundwater levels in the states of northern Punjab and Haryana, the rice sowing season was pushed from May to June, to coincide with India’s monsoon. This, too, has shortened the time between crop rotations.

For farmers, this is a matter of sustenance. And in classical economics, this is called an externality. The bad air, in most cases, is external to the farmers because of the meteorological conditions that bring the fumes to Delhi and make it stay there. “Bad air does not feature in farmer’s cost calculation. Thus, this is also a form of market failure because there is no market to account for this cost,” Rampal explains.

But even as an economics conundrum, there are solutions to be found in behavioural economics.

Nudging good behaviour

If one were to take the stubble burning cause as an example, Rampal believes that incentivising good behaviour can be a behavioural economics tool to counter this problem.

In a research paper (pdf) published in 2019, economist Adrian Lopes found that one intervention that worked to prevent residue crop burning was to tell farmers that there are many others who are not doing this. This, they noted, was able to change the farmers’ perspective.

Another intervention that could work, according to Rampal, is to calculate the cost of air pollution morbidity, the job loss because of poor health, and the spending on public healthcare. These could be seen as “savings” to be used to incentivise farmers to not burn crop.

This system of incentivising could, in fact, work for other sources of pollution—such as waste burning, diesel vehicles, and haphazard construction—too.

“Behavioural nudges have very promising results. Niti Aayog (Indian government’s think tank) has a ‘nudge unit’ that can be mobilised for this,” Rampal adds. For instance, midday meals in schools could replace rice with millets or other grain to incentivise farmers to grow something other than rice, says Bhavreen Kandhari, a Delhi-based environmental activist.

Jha also alerts to the fact that a mainstream discourse that focuses too much on stubble burning only takes away from the real issue of year-long air pollution. And, the responsibility for incentivising “good” behaviour, though, has to come from the government.

Passing the buck

“There is a clear lack of political will and urgency. We don’t even acknowledge the problem the whole year round and wake up on the eve of bad air days,” Swechha’s Jha says. He points to the Delhi government’s budget allocation of a mere Rs52 crore ($7 million) to address the air pollution crisis. “Out of this, Rs20 crore is being spent on public relations in the name of raising awareness. Another Rs20 crore is being spent on a single smog tower, which shows you their lack of seriousness and commitment,” Jha says.

Smog towers, according to experts, are useless till they are installed in large numbers. “The smog tower is reflective of the government acting without a science-based approach to policymaking. This seems like it is doing things for propaganda and just to be seen by its voters and constituency,” Aarti Khosla, director of Climate Trends, an organisation that works on issues of climate change, clean air, and energy.

For environmentalists, the Covid-19 lockdown was an opportunity Delhi had to truly examine its air quality mess. “This lockdown revealed very clearly the four sources of pollution that went completely missing—small industry, transport, brick kilns, and construction,” Khosla says. “That was an experiment of where we need to be in terms of stringent action, but not in the direction we need to be in terms of shutting down the economy,” she adds.

Others believe that a government that is chopping trees and “transplanting” them, which is a questionable experiment, is not serious about tackling air pollution. “Something as direct and simple as waste segregation at source, so that the wet waste can be safely composted, has still not taken off in Delhi,” Kandhari says. “Instead, you want to buy smog guns or get dust vacuum machines. To me, it merely seems like propaganda,” she says.

For now, though, Jha believes we need to stop talking about short-term measures. A policy vision—whether in the form of behavioural nudges, penalising activities that negatively impact air, or raising awareness—needs to be clearly spelt out and acted upon all year through. The central government yesterday (Oct. 29) notified a new law to curb air pollution in Delhi and adjoining areas. This law will enable a permanent commission with 20 members from states and bureaucratic departments to study, curb, and penalise sources of particulate matter pollution in Delhi.

Experts say they will need to scrutinise the law to see if it is an improvement on all preceding laws and committees that were already in place to fix pollution. For now, though, “We are in an emergency and it needs a proportionate action and response like you would a patient in an ICU, rather pop a paracetamol,” Jha says.