If nothing else, a recent graphic in The Guardian, based on data from the journal, Preventive Medicine, and the World Health Organisation (WHO), should awaken the government to the terrifying dangers of air pollution in this country. It shows cities around the globe where the harm caused by cycling or slow jogging — measured in minutes per day — exceeds the benefits of such exercise due to the inhaling of pollutants. These refer to smallest measureable particulates of matter — PM 2.5 that are less than 2.5 micrometers and can bypass the body’s defences; by comparison, particles of 10 micrometers are less than the width of a human hair.
The world map —the graphic — shows India with a crown of such polluted cities straddling the north of the country and extending into Pakistan and Afghanistan, forming the biggest concentration of such danger spots in the entire world. Gwalior and Allahabad top the list (along with Zabol in Iran) where more than 30 minutes of cycling or slow jogging in a day is counterproductive. Patna and Raipur figure in the next band where the tipping point is 45 minutes, while in Delhi — listed as the world’s worst polluted city by the WHO in 2014 — Ludhiana and Kanpur cycling or slow jogging becomes counter-productive after 60 minutes. This means that despite living in the diabetes capital of the world and facing rising obesity levels, Indians will not be able to keep fit by any brisk exercise above these time limits. The American school in Delhi listed only five days in the four months after October 2015 that were safe for children to play in the open.
Obviously, walking is also hazardous, though for a longer time limit. While the journal and WHO address the middle class all over the world, the poor in these Indian cities have no alternative but to walk or cycle to work. A 2008 study by the Institute of Urban Transport (India) estimated that there were a million trips by cycle every day in Delhi. This data comes just before alarm bells rang with the State of Global Air 2017 report by two US-based institutes which shows that there were 1.1 million premature deaths in India due to long-term exposure to PM 2.5 in 2015. Since 2010, India and Bangladesh have recorded the highest such levels in the world. While China registered slightly higher figures, it has now acted against this hazard — the situation in India, in contrast, is getting worse. China has registered a 17 per cent increase in these deaths since 1990, while the increase is nearly 50 per cent in India. The highest number of premature deaths globally due to ozone is also in India. Might all this qualify as genocide?
To complete the toxic trio of such studies, new research in the journal Environment International shows that pre-term babies (born less than 37 weeks of gestation) face the risk of death or physical or neurological disabilities due to exposure to PM 2.5, among other factors. However, such exposure can also affect babies in the womb. In 2010, as many as 2.7 million pre-term births in the world — 18 per cent of the total — were associated with this fine particulate matter, which can lodge deep in a mother’s lungs. India alone contributed 1 million such pollution-related births, twice that in China.
A recent e-book on air pollution titled Choked by Pallavi Aiyar, who lived in Beijing before the 2008 Olympics, details the measures China took to clean up its act. Like Delhi, Beijing was afflicted by the burgeoning number of cars and rampant construction; like Delhi, it was hit by dust storms (from the Gobi desert, as against the Thar) and is similarly landlocked. Unlike Delhi’s environs, it didn’t face the pollution caused by the burning of agricultural waste. Half the world’s concrete and a third of its steel was used for the games. Construction materials and debris transported in open trucks or dumped indiscriminately contributed the bulk of coarser particles.
Stung by international media criticism, which posed a threat to the games, the government swung into action. It began to enforce the measurement of “blue sky days” in a year, which rose from 241 in 2006 to 274 two years later. However, international researchers alleged that some monitoring stations had shifted to cleaner areas to fudge the figures — always a problem with China’s statistics. Despite this, blue skies were a visible proof of the clean-up.
China spent $17 billion on improving its capital’s environment from 2001, when it won the Games bid, to 2008. On air pollution alone, it spent $557 million. The number of buses doubled, while 50,000 old taxis and 10,000 old buses were scrapped and replaced with new models. It introduced 4,000 CNG buses — something that Delhi did in 1998. Over 200 polluting industries were shifted out — due to the lack of democratic safeguards, China doesn’t face the prospect of protracted law suits. There was a fourfold increase in use of natural gas. Nevertheless, Beijing’s GDP rose four times between 2000 and 2007 with large-scale industrialisation and urbanisation proceeding “at a breakneck speed”, writes Aiyar.
China cracked down on cars that didn’t meet emission standards by preventing them from entering the city. The decline in sulphur dioxide levels was the most dramatic achievement. In a decade from 1998, it “leapfrogged” – to employ the exhortatory title of a tome by the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi – from Euro I to Euro IV standards. Euro IV had gasoline with 50 parts per million (ppm) sulphur, as compared to 800 ppm under Euro I.
By 2012, Beijing restricted the ownership of cars to those who didn’t possess one and bidders had to enter a monthly lottery. Notably, something which Delhi’s mandarins should note, it limited the use of cars by government officials. By 2014, it had cut the number of new license plates by 37 per cent. In 2013, Beijing announced that it would spend a total of $163 billion in five years on tackling pollution. Across China, PM 2.5 levels fell by 37 per cent between 2010 and 2015.
What will it take Delhi to gets its act together to stop being the world’s air pollution pariah? Perhaps international criticism by environmental experts and the media like the controversy over The New York Times correspondent who wrote he was leaving the country for fear of worsening his young son’s asthma. Successive governments have turned a blind eye not only to urban air pollution but also to indoor contamination caused by smoky chulhas. Years ago, Kirk Smith, an American expert now at the University of California at Berkeley, loosely compared such exposure to the equivalent of inhaling carcinogens from two packs of cigarettes a day. He is now researching how LPG can reduce the health risks faced by pregnant women while cooking in India, as well as the contribution of households to ambient air pollution in the country.
The writer is Chairman Emeritus, Forum of Environmental Journalists in India