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Sunday, October 24, 2021

WHO’s new air quality standards underline the health-pollution link. It’s time policies take a holistic approach

India’s air quality standards were way short of WHO norms even before. The new thresholds will sharpen these differences

By: Editorial |
Updated: September 24, 2021 8:01:48 am
India’s air quality standards were way short of WHO norms even before.

The WHO’s new air quality benchmarks should be a wake-up call for policymakers in most parts of the world, including India. The new limits, announced on Wednesday, are not mandatory but policymakers would be well-advised to not ignore the global health body’s advisory that peoples’ health is at risk from much lower levels of pollution than previously thought of. The stringent yardsticks mean that almost all of India is a polluted zone for most of the year.

India’s air quality standards were way short of WHO norms even before. The new thresholds will sharpen these differences. India’s annual average PM 2.5 standard, for instance, is now eight times below the WHO’s benchmark. Much of the gap has to do with geographical and meteorological factors that contribute to a high base pollution load in several parts of the country. Vehicular and industrial emissions compound the problem. But India’s quest for clean air has also suffered because pollution management in the country rarely goes beyond ad-hoc measures such as bans, fines and shutting down of power stations. Despite the well-documented links between pollution and health – reiterated by the WHO on Wednesday — the ministries of environment and health rarely collaborate. Clean-air plans have rarely been products of the combined expertise of environment scientists, public health professionals, urban planners and transport sector specialists. The National Clean Air Programme does talk of inter-sectoral linkages, especially health and environment, and sets time-bound targets — most importantly, a 20-30 per cent reduction in particulate matter concentration in 2024 compared to 2017. But the programme’s litmus test will lie in the manner in which it brings together the inputs of different departments into its final action plan – in the absence of such concerted action, the NCAP could end up becoming another data-gathering exercise.

India’s ambient air quality standards were last updated in 2009. The Central Pollution Control Board is reportedly working on framing revised guidelines. Even though complete compliance with them might be difficult, the CPCB cannot afford to ignore the WHO’s new benchmarks. The heightened health risks of pollution, underlined by the new guidelines, should be the key takeaway for India’s premier pollution monitoring agency – and all other agencies responsible for clean air in the country.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on September 24, 2021 under the title ‘Clean the air’.

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