air pollution

Clean air: This is what Indian cities can learn from China. But will they?

As Diwali fireworks worsen air quality, the author of the air pollution handbook ‘Choked’ explains how Beijing’s policies are showing the way.

I lived in Beijing for seven years between 2002 and 2009. During that time, visits to India invariably included conversations with aunties who while not usually environmental in their outlook, delightedly commiserated about China’s toxic air. “Oh ho! Such terrible pollution. Tch! Tch!”

Having spent years being dumbfounded by our northern neighbour’s miraculous economic growth it was a comfort to think that the Chinese had some real problems too. “Is it really that bad, beta?” the aunties would ask, egging me on to confirm their best fears. The fact was, and is, that it is bad, but not as bad as India. According to NASA satellite data, the levels of fine particulate matter got worse across India by 13 percent between 2010 and 2015, while China’s fell by 17 per cent.

Fine particulate matter is abbreviated as PM 2.5 and refers to microscopic particles that are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, tiny enough to be absorbed deep into the lungs and bloodstream. Sustained exposure to high levels of PM 2.5 causes not only respiratory disorders like bronchitis, asthma and inflammation of the lungs, but can also lead to life-threatening heart attacks and strokes.

According to the WHO, PM 2.5 levels should not exceed 25 micrograms per cubic meter over a 24-hour period and 10 micrograms per cubic meter on average over a year. In cities like Delhi and Beijing there are days when PM 2.5 spikes to over 1000, a level so high that it’s literally off the scales of many pollution monitoring devices. Delhi’s average annual PM 2.5 concentrations are in the vicinity of 150 μg/m, compared to about 60 μg/m for Beijing. Overall, Delhi’s PM 2.5 tends to about three times the Beijing mean and 15 times the WHO guidelines.

The learning model

For India, China is the contemporary example to learn from when it comes to battling pollution. Both are large, populous countries attempting to shift hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty by industrialising. Environmental degradation has long been the collateral damage of this process of transformation, experienced by all industrialised nations from Japan to the United States.

For governments and citizens to begin to care about pollution as much as economic growth usually requires an inflection point. In Beijing this point was the 2008 Olympics Games, when unprecedented international attention dragged the dirty air into the headlines, where it has stayed since.

In the global imagination China may remain singularly synonymous with bad air, but Beijing has instituted wide-ranging and difficult changes over the last decade. Despite the widespread belief in India that the Chinese government has carte blanche to push through any reforms it likes, in fact the ruling party is not a monolith. Making environmental protection a priority is an ongoing and conflicted process. It has met with considerable pushback from vested interests both within and outside of the Communist Party of China. And yet Beijing has persisted, partly as a response to civil society pressure from below and partly from an elite-driven realization of the economic consequences of unchecked environmental damage.

An intent to “severely punish” environmental violators and those who fail to report such violations was explicitly mentioned in the latest Five Year Plan (2016-2020), which is the country’s greenest to date. Ambitious targets for air quality progress have been set under the plan, requiring hundreds of cities to meet “good” or “excellent” standards for air quality (that is, when the Air Quality Index, which indicates a mix of pollutants, is below 100).

How laws matter

In 2014 China updated its environmental protection law to give local authorities the power to detain company bosses who don’t complete environmental impact assessments. The law also removed limits on the fines that firms could be subject to for breaching pollution quotas. The city of Beijing’s environmental protection bureau handed out fines totalling 183 million yuan (£21.5m) for pollution law violations in 2015 alone, according to Chinese state media.

China’s pollution fighting attempts have been multi-pronged, but with a focus on heavy industry. Despite being the mainstay of China’s energy mix, coal-fired power plants have come under the hammer. In March 2017 the national government announced the closure or cancellation of 103 of these plants, which would have been capable of generating a total of more than 50 gigawatts of power. The authorities also announced plans to cut steel production capacity by another 50 million tons.

Moreover, all new coal-fired power plants are mandated to be “ultra low emissions”, or about as clean as natural gas plants. To replace coal, China is rolling out the world’s biggest investment in wind and solar power. At the start of this year China’s energy agency said the country will plough 2.5 trillion yuan (£292bn) into renewable power generation by 2020.

Vehicular pollution is not ignored. China’s oil industry now produces gasoline and diesel suitable for vehicles at the China V standard (equivalent to the Euro V). Further, measures to restrict car ownership have been put in place in many cities. Beijingers, for example, can only buy a new car if they do not already have a vehicle registered under their name. They are then eligible to enter a monthly lottery for licence plates.

An all-round approach

A 2016 Greenpeace report points out that China has developed a network of 1500 air quality monitoring stations in over 900 cities. There is no other country in the developing world with this level of monitoring infrastructure. In comparison, India has only thirty-nine such stations, covering twenty-three cities (as of February 2016).

As a result of its extensive capacity to continuously measure the AQI, Chinese policy is able to move from regulating sources of pollution (like vehicles and power plants) to also regulating the overall mix of pollutants in the air and holding localities responsible for adjusting limits to respond to weather changes. In other words, on “bad air days” cities are required to make greater efforts to improve the environment.

The Greenpeace report compares India (unfavourably) with China on a number of other ambient air criteria. For example, the share of thermal power plants with basic pollution abatement equipment in China is 95 per cent compared to 10 per cent in India.

Finally, unlike India, China has learnt that for anti-pollution measures to be successful they must take into account entire air sheds, or zones within which air circulates. Although a few Indian cities (notably Delhi) have taken some anti-pollution actions, these are not coordinated at the regional level. But Beijing’s experience with polluted neighbouring areas like Tianjin and Hebei has proved that unless the North Indian states of Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan work in tandem with Delhi, even Herculean efforts by the capital city on its own will not prevent it from choking.

China’s experience with industrialisation and fighting pollution shows that blue skies entail a tough, long slog that requires, among other elements, political will, civil society activism, commercial compliance and bureaucratic incentives. There are no silver bullets.

Pallavi Aiyar’s Choked: Everything You Were Afraid To Know About Air Pollution has been published on the Juggernaut app.

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Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight

Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.

Most con artists are very easy to like; the ones that belong to the corporate society, even more so. The Jordan Belforts of the world are confident, sharp and can smooth-talk their way into convincing people to bend at their will. For years, Harshad Mehta, a practiced con-artist, employed all-of-the-above to earn the sobriquet “big bull” on Dalaal Street. In 1992, the stockbroker used the pump and dump technique, explained later, to falsely inflate the Sensex from 1,194 points to 4,467. It was only after the scam that journalist Sucheta Dalal, acting on a tip-off, broke the story exposing how he fraudulently dipped into the banking system to finance a boom that manipulated the stock market.


In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.

One such marketman was Ketan Parekh who took over Dalaal Street after the arrest of Harshad Mehta. Ketan Parekh kept a low profile and broke character only to celebrate milestones such as reaching Rs. 100 crore in net worth, for which he threw a lavish bash with a star-studded guest-list to show off his wealth and connections. Ketan Parekh, a trainee in Harshad Mehta’s company, used the same infamous pump-and-dump scheme to make his riches. In that, he first used false bank documents to buy high stakes in shares that would inflate the stock prices of certain companies. The rise in stock prices lured in other institutional investors, further increasing the price of the stock. Once the price was high, Ketan dumped these stocks making huge profits and causing the stock market to take a tumble since it was propped up on misleading share prices. Ketan Parekh was later implicated in the 2001 securities scam and is serving a 14-years SEBI ban. The tactics employed by Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh were similar, in that they found a loophole in the system and took advantage of it to accumulate an obscene amount of wealth.


Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.

Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.

It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.

Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.


The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.


The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.