Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: AP

ONE of the biggest successes that the US government has scored in recent decades in the battle over transparency in China was the installation of an air quality monitor on the US Embassy compound in Beijing’s Chaoyang district in 2008.

It began publishing readings on the web in 2009.

Initially, this move might have been intended as a self-defence measure, to help US embassy staff serving in Beijing figure out when it was safe to venture outside.

Beyond Beijing, it is now available for other key Chinese cities, where US consulates have monitors installed. As of 2013, Beijing experienced 60 days (or 16 percent of the year) at emergency levels of unsafe air pollution – some days so high they were off the safety measurement charts. Other Chinese cities fared even worse.

Contrary to what one would have suspected, establishing this transparency tool has not been seen – as it would have been judged in the past – as an unfriendly act by a hostile capitalist power.

To be sure, for diplomatic reasons, Chinese officials have officially protested that publishing the data is an unlawful interference in the country’s domestic affairs. But policymakers also realise that they do have a real problem on their hands with all that air pollution.

Sensitive question

For a long time, it was a sensitive diplomatic question whether the US would endeavour to bring similar focus on air pollution to India. The Obama administration has just now decided to do so. And that is a good thing, even though the move has been timed obviously to come out at the end of a prolonged US-India “love fest” after Narendra Modi’s election.

After many years of never ending reams of news stories about how bad the air in China’s capital (and other cities) really is, the world has only recently started hearing that air pollution in Indian cities is actually worse – and has been so for some time.

For example, the World Health Organisation recently declared the top four most air-polluted cities in the world to be in India. The worst offender in the world is not Beijing after all, but rather India’s capital, New Delhi. Although experts had known this for a while, the world and local media continued to focus on Beijing’s smog. For all the criticism of how the Chinese government has handled or reported the pollution levels, they did admit its existence and did attempt to measure it.

In astonishing contrast, the people of the world’s largest democracy – India – have been kept in the dark about air pollution by their own government, as they have about so many other matters.

Indian citizens and global travellers alike trusted the India government’s happy public relations campaign about more trees being planted in Delhi and the like. To keep their own government on its toes and focused on protecting public health, Indians should welcome the US government installing monitors like those in China.

The US State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency have announced that the US will place air-quality monitors outside embassies in numerous foreign cities, starting with diplomatic posts in India.

In order to create a real marker against which to measure progress, it should be most welcome for the US government to treat India the same way it treats China.

A nation whose people get suffocated is never a pleasant prospect for anyone on the inside. It’s not only a terrible long-term growth strategy, and not just in terms of stunted growth of children and other such effects. It’s also a real problem with regard to keeping the population from getting politically restless.

The current situation is all the more troubling as India, where the manufacturing sector only has a 16 percent share of GDP (compared to 32 percent in China), is still trying to expand that part of its economy.

As a true friend of India’s people – and a supporter of transparency – the US announcement to install monitors in India should be welcomed by all, even if it means making the government uncomfortable. If the Chinese Communist Party learned to see its value, so can the leaders of the world’s largest democracy.

Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist.