A farmer burns straw stubble in Zirakpur, Punjab. New Delhi was blanketed in noxious haze on October 23 as air pollution in parts of the city soared to "severe" levels. Photo: Money Sharma/AFP

Donald Trump triggered an angry debate in India Friday when, along with China and Russia, he lashed out at its high levels of air pollution.

The US President cited the big polluters during the last presidential debate with Democrat Joe Biden in Nashville, Tennessee.

His remarks prompted angry comments by Indians against their own government but they also questioned Trump’s contribution to pollution control and his taking the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

“Look at China, how filthy it is. Look at Russia, look at India. It’s filthy. The air is filthy,’’ Trump said.

“The Paris accord I took us out because we will have to spend trillions of dollars and we were treated very unfairly. When they put us there they did greatest disservice to us. I would not let them take away our jobs.’’

New Delhi holds the distinction of being the world’s most polluted capital. Last year, 21 of the 30 most-polluted cities in the world came from north India, according to World Air Quality Report.

All the 30 cities were in greater Asia, it said. Air pollution has risen especially over the past decade because of increased industrial activity, construction and lax implementation of anti-pollution rules and penalties.

Today most neighborhoods in the National Capital Region of Delhi recorded Air Quality Index (AQI) on particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5) of between 296 and 328, with a few recording higher than 400, which classify air quality as poor and very poor and could lead to breathing discomfort and respiratory illness on prolonged exposure.

India started its first National Clean Air Program (NCAP) last year to reduce pollution. The NCAP aims to reduce PM2.5 and PM10 air pollution by 20-30% in 102 cities to 2017 levels by 2024.

Despite improvements, India still faces serious air pollution challenges, says the report on State of Global Air 2020 by the Health Effects Institute. India continued to lead the report’s city-wise ranking of annual PM2.5. About half of the 50 most polluted cities were in India, and no Indian city met the WHO target for annual pollution exposure during 2019, it said.

The biggest polluter remains China, which is also the largest importer of fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas and crude oil, and burns half the coal used for energy generation worldwide.

Over the past decade China reduced the percentage of its population exposed to household air pollution to 36% from 54%, while India pared it to 61% from 73%, with still much ground to cover, said World Air Quality Report for 2019. PM2.5-related deaths in India rose 61% over the past decade to 373,000 compared with 20% in China to 238,000, and a modest 6% rise in Turkey to 2,350.

Yet, reactions came in quickly to Trump’s “filthy” remarks. A key reason was that Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have invested in each other much more than they have invested in the relations of their countries.

Kapil Sibal, a senior leader with the Indian National Congress said Trump doubted India’s Covid numbers, called India “tariff king” and now calls India’s air “filthy,” which was what Modi got for pampering Trump.

The Indian government didn’t immediately react to Trump’s comments.

“India stands committed to climate change goals but the US chose to withdraw, much against the wishes of many Americans,’’ wrote Priyanka Chaturcedi, a member of parliament. “What an unfortunate comment about India.’’

Winder public opinion in India remains clearly in favor of reducing pollution and taking strict action against polluters.

After giving notice of withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the US is eligible to formally withdraw after November 4. Biden, widely expected to win, considers climate change an emergency and has promised to rejoin the Agreement. He has also committed to convening a global climate summit to set more ambitious targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Estimates suggest China is the single biggest polluter with 28% of the world’s total emissions of greenhouse gases, followed by the US (15%), Europe (10%), India (7%) and Russia (5%).  Its growing economy is the world’s largest guzzler of coal and other fossil fuels.

“No doubt India’s air is a global embarrassment but Trump’s commentary on India’s air in the backdrop of his justification of withdrawing from Paris Agreement is unfortunate and juvenile,’’ said environmentalist Vimalendu Jha. “America is historically the largest emitter in the world and currently is the second largest.’’

To give its due, India has taken a series of measures to cut pollution, including popularizing sources of energy such as solar and wind power by giving fiscal incentives. It has cut automobile emissions by ensuring only upgraded engines are in use, and increasing the number of pollution monitoring centers.

To encourage the use of gas and not coal or wood fires for cooking, Modi helped rural women with cheaper stoves, a move that was also seen to be populist during elections. The Supreme Court helped by banning firecrackers during the Diwali festival season. This was a cause of severe breathing-related illnesses around Delhi.

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