3 votes

Altruism and development - It's complicated

1 comment

  1. skybrian
    From the article: [...] [...] [...] [...] [...] [...] [...] (She goes on to argue that for causes that have a possibility of higher impact than bednets, but doesn't recommend any specific charities.)

    From the article:

    As December rolls in, my inbox is filled with requests for donations, often from organizations I have given to in the past. This holiday season is also bittersweet because I cannot visit Delhi, where I was born and my parents still live, because of the air pollution and smog during the winter months. In Delhi, I find it hard to breathe, and usually lose my voice because of inflammation caused by particulate matter pollution. This year, I am under doctor’s orders to avoid travelling to Delhi in the winter; I’ve been struggling with respiratory problems from long Covid.


    One simple Google search in I learned that globally air pollution kills 10 times the number of people killed by malaria. But the reason many researchers and experts feel that the “highest impact” comes from giving to malaria charities is because it is easier to quantify malaria deaths, and quantify malaria interventions by counting doses and nets, which lends itself well to evaluation and comparison. The top charities are listed as such not necessarily because the evaluators can objectively rank the most pressing problems or rank the institutions that have the highest impact on human well-being.

    There are many reasons air pollution mitigation doesn’t make it to the top of these lists despite a ten times higher death toll. It cannot be avoided by distributing a $5 net. The costs and the benefits from air pollution in Delhi cannot be easily quantified. Nor can the benefits from the interventions to mitigate pollution be easily measured. Simply put, air pollution in Delhi is complex, while malaria death and malaria nets in Africa are legible. We can only evaluate impact of interventions and projects that are legible. And only studying complex phenomena narrowly can make them legible.


    Delhi is one of the richer states and has lower levels of household or indoor pollution (mostly caused by cooking fuel). But, on the map, Delhi doesn’t look like other southern and western rich states. Delhi has relatively more severe ambient particulate matter pollution, especially PM2.5.


    Ironically, the increase in pollution from the increase in the number of vehicles and road dust from construction are the unintended consequences of the activist Supreme Court of India trying to reduce pollution in Delhi.


    The court started by setting standards for gasoline, phasing out leaded petrol, eclipsing rules for phasing out decades-old vehicles, etc. In a drastic measure, on July 28, 1998, the Supreme Court ordered all commercial public transport in Delhi, which included about 100,000 buses, taxis and auto-rickshaws, to convert to run on a cleaner fuel, CNG (compressed natural gas), by April 1, 2001. It simultaneously ordered the Delhi government to create a bus fleet with 10,000 buses by 2001.


    The Economic Survey of Delhi 2002 reported that the Delhi Transport Corporation’s (DTC) on-road bus fleet reduced by 40% and average bus occupancy increased by 40% in 2001, compared to the preceding year. I started university shortly after the diesel bus ban and CNG conversion order came into play, and the lasting memory of my first year of university was figuring out how to get on and off overcrowded buses without getting groped. After 12-18 months, the general view in Delhi was to switch to private vehicles, either owned or for hire. After struggling for the first year in college, my solution was carpooling with five other friends. I wasn’t alone.

    A second court order during that time froze the number of auto-rickshaw (three-wheeler scooter rickshaw) licenses that were issued in the city at 55,000. Delhi is a large and sprawling city, and while public and private buses covered the hubs, autorickshaws served as the last mile taxi for the poor and middle class. This freeze lasted until 2011 when an additional 45,000 licenses were issued though Delhi and its suburbs had grown many times over in size.

    Another blow to the bus fleet came in 2011. A fatal accident involving a 14-year-old boy—the 61st victim in 2007 to be killed by the rash and negligent driving of one of these private Blue Line bus drivers—caused Judges Mukul Mudgal and P.K. Bhasin of the Delhi High Court to take suo moto cognizance of the matter after reading the news. The ordered over 2,000 private Blue Line buses off the Delhi roads because of rash driving. The Supreme Court upheld this madness.


    These actions by the Court decimated bus transport in Delhi, and the city never recovered. Delhi has fewer registered buses today than it did in 2001. This includes newer mini buses and private bus models. The government-owned and -run DTC has fewer buses today relative to 2001.


    As Indians get richer, household air pollution decreases, as higher incomes increase access to cleaner fuels. But in the absence of state capacity, good rules and standards and basics like a good public bus fleet running on clean energy, the burden attributable to ambient particulate matter pollution will likely increase. This is because as Indians get richer, in the absence of quick and reliable transportation, they will rely on personal vehicles, which means more road and metro construction and more vehicles to cover the last mile.

    (She goes on to argue that for causes that have a possibility of higher impact than bednets, but doesn't recommend any specific charities.)

    2 votes