China is Being Sued For Its Bad Air; Is The Indian Govt Listening?

An air pollution mask can cost anything between Rs 200 to Rs 3,000. How much are you willing to spend for clean air?

Lawyer Cheng Hai has an itemised list of compensation demands from Beijing authorities over the city's smog: 65 yuan ($9) for having to buy face masks, 100 yuan ($15) for seeing a doctor for a sore throat and 9,999 yuan ($1,500) for emotional distress.

Fed up with what they consider halfhearted efforts to fight air pollution, Cheng and like-minded lawyers are putting China's legal system to the test by suing the governments of the capital and its surrounding regions.

“Some people might think that air pollution is inevitable with economic development, but they are wrong,” said Cheng, 64. “We have laws to protect air quality, and major pollution can be avoided if they are fully enforced.”

Also Read: India, China Accounted for Half of Deaths Due to Pollution in 2015

The lawsuits demonstrate the mounting frustration of China's middle class at the country's notoriously bad air, a topic that is expected to be discussed at the upcoming annual meeting of the country's parliament three years after Premier Li Keqiang declared a "war on pollution" at the same event.

The dissatisfaction comes even as authorities in the capital are closing factories, getting rid of coal-fired boilers and taking older, heavier-polluting vehicles off the road.

Official data show those measures are having some effect, with Beijing showing year-on-year improvements since 2013.

Also Read: China to Get Asia’s First Vertical Forest to Help Battle Pollution

Yet the city’s average reading of the tiny particulate matter PM2.5 – considered a good gauge of air pollution – is still seven times what the World Health Organisation considers safe.

"We are the victims of smog and we are entitled to ask for an apology and compensation from the government," said another of the lawyers, Yu Wensheng, 50, from Beijing.

The suits, which accuse authorities of failing to deal effectively with the smog, are important to show that the government is not above the law, said Yu.

Also Read: Move Aside Delhi, Kolkata May Have Worse Air Pollution

"If the government is not restricted by law, then what else can restrict it?" said Yu, who has spent time in detention accused of supporting Hong Kong pro-democracy protests in 2014 and for speaking up in support of detained rights lawyers.

Along with Beijing, the group has attempted to sue the neighboring province of Hebei and the port city of Tianjin. The region generally suffers the worst pollution in China and forms a front line in the central government's battle against the scourge.

The lawyers say their cases are more about drawing attention to government inaction rather than winning a settlement.

(This article has been edited for length.)