Clearing The Air

An alarming rise in pollution levels underscores the urgent need for better regulation.

Written by Sanjoy Hazarika | Published:November 10, 2015 12:08 am
A field on fire near Moga in Punjab. A field on fire near Moga in Punjab.

As a lethal combination of pollutants — from traffic emissions to particulates from the burning fields in Punjab and Haryana, as well as industrial effluents (and anything else I may have left out) — descends on the capital city and its luckless inhabitants, it has never been clearer how critical air pollution is to health. Indeed, the largest numbers of people affected by pollution happen to live in India. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has reported that 13 of the 20 international cities with the worst fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in air pollution are in India. Delhi, as we all know, ranks as the top offender.

After what appeared to be a reasonable level of success for over a decade — thanks to the well-publicised campaigns by the Centre for Science and Environment and other groups, as well as greater official assertion of emission standards — we are back at square one. It now appears that the adoption of compressed natural gas (CNG) for the bus, taxi and auto-rickshaw fleets as well as higher standards for newer vehicles was only partly effective last winter, the levels of PM2.5 were listed at three-to-four times the acceptable safety threshold. Between November 2014 and January this year, air quality in Delhi was defined as “severely polluted” for over 65 per cent of the time. According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), 77 per cent of Indian urban agglomerations exceed the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for respirable suspended particulate matter (PM10). The data shows that both the urban and the rural populations are exposed to dangerously high levels of fine particulates (PM2.5). As many as 54 per cent of India’s population lives in regions that do not meet the NAAQS for fine particulate matter, and nearly every Indian (99.5 per cent) lives in a region with air pollution levels above the stricter guidelines of the WHO.

Whether it is indoor or outdoor, air pollution can trigger lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumonia and other acute lower respiratory infections, lung cancer, loss of vision, including cataracts, and it heightens the risk of cardiovascular disease. The WHO has ranked outdoor air pollution among the top killers in India. Air pollution has also made India home to the highest rate of deaths caused by chronic respiratory diseases anywhere in the world. Bad air is also blamed for the growth in stress levels as well as non-communicable diseases, such as high blood pressure. The annual cost of the environmental damage due to outdoor and indoor air pollution has been estimated to be Rs 1,10,000 crore and Rs 87,000 crore respectively.

Reducing emissions that cause poor air quality, ozone depletion and climate change is key. But we need to understand and identify where the main challenges lie.

Take the case of Delhi. There has been an explosive growth in the number of personal vehicles. Yes, there’s better fuel and higher emission standards, but the number of cars on the roads is so large that all the plus points are crossed out. In addition, there is the burning of straw in neighbouring states during the winter months. Delhi sucks in this smoke, which then settles down and creates a massive health hazard.

Thus, the causes, sources and impact of air quality issues are interconnected and they need to be addressed together. One solution is better and more extensive public transport, such as the metro and buses. Addressing one air quality issue can often help to reduce other kinds of pollution. The government, in partnership with non-governmental organisations, technical specialists and research organisations, needs to initiate a clean air campaign.

This needs to take the form of legislation as well as behaviour-changing approaches. Governments, both at the Central and state levels, need to reassess their production and consumption of energy and work with partners for a low-carbon future — one that is more efficient, has more natural gas and a growing share of renewable energy, such as solar and bio-gas.

The Indian government cannot delay a roadmap for emissions standards any longer. The Saumitra Chaudhuri committee’s suggestions on better standards are quite significant in this regard because only better regulation and the adoption of an inclusive approach that promotes healthier lifestyles will result in cleaner air.

The writer is director of the Centre for Northeast Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia.