Environment

Beyond Fireworks in Delhi and on Twitter, India’s Stance on Air Pollution Deaths Is Hazardously Hazy

The Indian government’s response to international reports on air pollution deaths continues to be unclear and it refuses to lay enough of its own data on the table.

A flock of birds drinks from the fly ash pond of a thermal power plant in Angul, Odisha, a coal mining and power hub classified ranked as one of India's most critically polluted industrial clusters. As of September 2017, India has only 86 Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitors operated by the Central Pollution Control Board. Credit: Aruna Chandrasekhar

A flock of birds drinks from the fly ash pond of a thermal power plant in Angul, Odisha, a coal mining and power hub classified ranked as one of India’s most critically polluted industrial clusters. As of September 2017, India has only 86 Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitors operated by the Central Pollution Control Board. Credit: Aruna Chandrasekhar

Another Diwali, another explosive pollution statistic. If you could get over 999, Delhi’s score on its Air Quality Index as it maxed out the US Embassy’s Chanakyapuri monitor the morning after Diwali, the latest number to wrap your head around now is half a million. That’s how many people died in India from pollution-related causes in 2015, 124,207 of those from indoor air pollution and over 80,000 from pollution arising from coal power plants, according to a new Lancet report on public health and climate change. But if you were looking for official numbers in response, I wouldn’t hold my breath. Instead, the Indian government’s response to international reports on air pollution deaths continues to be hazy, as it refuses to lay enough of its own data on the table.

Communalising the commons

Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, sparks off an annual debate around air pollution and its impacts in developing countries. It is a debate that has, until now, largely centred around its capital city of Delhi, given its population, location, weather, vehicular-density and proximity to national news studios.

The debate this year was triggered by a relatively tame Supreme Court order that threatened to play damp squib on Diwali, banning the sale of crackers in Delhi until November 1, but not their burning. The order was issued in response to a case filed by petitioners Arjun Gopal and Aarav Bhandari and Zoya Rao Bhasin when they were toddlers. Now nearly three years old, the order was only brought about when their representatives argued in that the ban was yet to be in force on the days that it mattered the most.

India’s new environment minister Harsh Vardhan’s response in tweet, welcoming the Supreme Court’s order, was met with heavy troll fire from members of India’s conservative right that pitted tradition against common sense. The minister’s tweets have since been deleted.


Also read: Come Deepavali, It’s the Explosion of Hot Air Around Pollution That Hurts Us More


But brief bravado aside, the doctor-minister’s response to air-pollution-related mortality numbers were much more in keeping with tradition of his predecessor, the late Anil Madhav Dave, who called reports like the Lancet’s “good academic exercises”. “We have our own institutions working on air pollution and I would like to trust them more,” said the late minister in response to the State of Global Air report released in February this year, which estimated air pollution to be the cause of 1.1 million premature deaths.

Disproportionate data beyond Delhi and Diwali

In a way, Dave was only voicing an urgent desire for trust-worthy homegrown data that millions might echo, given the sheer paucity and quality of it that is being produced or relayed, outside of Delhi. As of September 2017, India has only 86 Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitors (CAAQMs) operated by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) that are sending out live, real-time data. This, in a country that has three mega cities, each home to more than 10 million people, 53 cities with a population over a million and 475 cities with more than a hundred thousand people.

Of the 86 CAAQMs in India operated by the CPCB, Delhi alone has ten. In addition, ten other monitors are operated as part of the SAFAR (System of Air Quality And Weather Forecasting And Research) developed by the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology. The Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) has 17 monitors of its own, set to jump to 26 by the end of October this year.

Cooling towers of a Jindal thermal power plant in Raigarh, Chhattisgarh merge with the smog. Chhattisgarh currently does not have a single real-time air pollution monitor, as communities are pushed to undertake monitoring themselves. Credit: Aruna Chandrasekhar

Cooling towers of a Jindal thermal power plant in Raigarh, Chhattisgarh merge with the smog. Chhattisgarh currently does not have a single real-time air pollution monitor, as communities are pushed to undertake monitoring themselves. Credit: Aruna Chandrasekhar

“We want to observe the micro as much as the macro,” said M.P. George, a senior scientist with the DPCC about the profusion of monitors around Delhi, which is a fair enough assertion that other cities could take a cue from.

But the macro picture, if you zoom out of Delhi, reveals grey areas on a scale that is terrifying. Uttar Pradesh, with a population of 200 million and critically polluted areas, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency of Varanasi, has only ten real-time monitors for the entire state. Even as we speak, pollution levels continue to skyrocket in the city of Kanpur, which has only one monitor to its name.

But perhaps the most alarming revelation is the near total absence of monitors in India’s coal-bearing states, where Adivasi citizens with the least carbon footprint live with the the fall-out of development-induced pollution. Two of India’s highest coal producing states – Odisha and Chhattisgarh – do not have a single CAAQM. Neither does Madhya Pradesh – the largest state in the country – or even Goa, with its mining and coal transport hubs. It’s not just industrial toxic hotspots like Chhattisgarh’s Korba and MP’s Singrauli – even the state capital of Raipur isn’t generating live pollution data, despite the rare honour of being ranked by the World Health Organisation amongst the world’s most polluted cities in 2014 and in 2016.


Also read: Come Deepavali, It’s the Explosion of Hot Air Around Pollution That Hurts Us More


Jharkhand, at the moment, has only one real-time monitor in Jharia, a mining town that has literally been burning for decades, as its coalfields spontaneously catch fire. However, this monitor, housed in a Tata-owned stadium, isn’t even registering the fine, particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in size (PM 2.5) that causes the greatest respiratory damage.

These data gaps need to be seen in the light of the Lancet’s Commission’s findings that burning fossil-fuels like coal and bio-mass accounts for 85% of airborne particulate pollution and for almost all pollution by nitrogen and sulphur oxides. Even seen from the myopic lens of Delhi, a modeling study by IIT Kanpur in 2016 indicates that nearly 60-90% of particulate-matter under 10 microns (PM 10) and nitrogen and sulphur pollution comes from emissions outside the city, primarily from thermal power plants. Delhi currently has around 16 coal-fired units within 50 kilometres from its center, and 114 units within 500 km, including states like Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh where monitors are currently missing. This, even when a report by the CPCB tells us that 16 new thermal power plants that started operations from January 2017 are dodging stricter emission norms, while 300 older plants have been let off the hook until 2020.

Other states without a single CAAQM include the whole of the North-East of India – Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Meghalaya, Manipur, Tripura, Nagaland, Mizoram and Assam – in addition to Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

“All states are on board now,” said Dipankar Saha, senior scientist with the CPCB, who dismissed concerns around states backing out and shared plans to raise the number of monitors to 104 by the end of the year, with Bhubaneswar, Bhopal Raipur and Ranchi hopefully getting two CAAQMS each. However, even by the CPCB’s own targets, state capitals and industrial areas need to have at least six real-time monitors, each mega city needs at least nine and each Class I city (of which India has over 400) need at least three.

China, in contrast, started with 74 cities and 496 monitors as part of its national Air Quality Reporting System, way back in January 2013, and has close to 1500 monitors in 360 cities and towns. “Of course there are some neighbourhoods that go unmonitored, but the data gap is never as wide as an entire state,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, air pollution specialist at Greenpeace based in Beijing. “In China, 75% of the population has a real-time air quality station within 50 km, in India, that number is less than 23%.”

Trucks carrying coal hurtle at break-neck speed through villages in Sundargarh, Odisha, leaving a thick layer of coal dust everywhere. Companies are not mandated to conduct health impact assessments, putting youth, the elderly and women particularly at risk. Credit: Aruna Chandrasekhar

Trucks carrying coal hurtle at break-neck speed through villages in Sundargarh, Odisha, leaving a thick layer of coal dust everywhere. Companies are not mandated to conduct health impact assessments, putting youth, the elderly and women particularly at risk. Credit: Aruna Chandrasekhar

The cost of public health and who’s paying

So why are there so few monitors? Cost, for a long time, has been cited a stumbling block. “We import monitors and other high-end equipment from France, Germany, the United States etc., which are expensive but these need to meet either US EPA, TUV (Germany) or MCERT (UK) standards,” said Saha, although why there are no equivalent Indian standards 35 years after India’s Air Act came into being is a separate matter of concern.

The CPCB has been looking to Central Public Sector Utilities – including Coal India Limited, National Mineral Development Corporation and National Thermal Power Corporation – to sponsor monitors and equipment from their Corporate Social Responsibility funds. As of date, of 85 new CAAQMs that the CPCB has sought funding for, only 25 are being funded by India’s environment ministry, while 60 are being funded by public-sector industries. But this unnecessary reliance on sectors notorious for environmental non-compliance is a measure that could backfire.

In a meeting in December 2016 called by the CPCB, Central Public Sector Units from the states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Jammu and Kashmir backed out from funding a total of 14 CAAQMs in their states.

“It’s not as if industries aren’t required to monitor pollution continuously already, but that is currently privately shared with Pollution Control Boards in respective states,” says Mohit Gupta of the Occupational Health Network of India. “Why can’t that data be made public, if it is being collected in states where there is none?”

But it isn’t like there aren’t development funds already available, if the environment ministry wanted to tap into them. Many of the states that backed out of real-time pollution monitoring are ironically the ones with the highest contributions to India’s Clean Energy Cess. The cess, collected since 2010 from companies for every tonne of coal mined, was meant to fuel research and innovation to help India make a clean transition and address climate change impacts in our countryside or in our cities. Instead, 56,700 crores of this substantial corpus was used to reimburse states for GST-losses, when funds weren’t subverted for the government’s Clean Ganga Mission.


Also read: Reality Check: Smoke From Firecracker Snake = 464 Cigarettes


Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh also lead collections under India’s District Mineral Foundation – set up in 2015 to allow for revenue-sharing with affected communities – contributing about Rs 8,474 crore to the Rs 11,000 crore corpus. As per Centre for Science and Environment India’s analysis, a vast majority of these funds have been used for road construction projects, in areas while baseline health and pollution data is severely lacking. None of the projects approved for funding in 2016-17 either under the DMF (District Mineral Foundation) or the Clean Energy Cess have looked at setting up better pollution monitoring in these districts or assessing and mitigating environmental impacts of on public health. In a reply to a parliamentary question on CSR underspend raised in August 2017, Arun Jaitley admitted that 84 PSUs had not spent a single rupee of their CSR expenditure in 2014-15, and 69 in 2015-16. With the private sector, those number are a whopping 4111 companies in 2014-15 and 1296 in 2015-16.

The lived experience of air pollution versus information being made available is spurring increased citizen and civil-society vigilance. In Chhattisgarh, for instance, mining-affected Adivasi communities are undertaking their own monitoring to explain the serious health impacts they’re facing from industrial pollution. In collaboration with groups like Community Environmental Monitoring, they’re testing for and finding evidence of heavy metals like arsenic, which Pollution Control Boards have not even begun looking for.

While low-cost monitors are changing the game the world over, start-ups confided that Delhi Pollution Control Committee and CPCB officials look at indigenous, low-cost monitors as an irritant, instead of a welcome last-mile addition. “If the concern is making sure everyone’s sensors meet a certain standard, then you (the CPCB) should have a national calibration unit that certifies low-cost monitors,” said a Delhi-based NGO looking at deploying low-cost monitors in rural areas. “But if we show you that levels are disastrous in places that you’re not looking in, you need to respond.”

It is precisely this failure to monitor, respond and protect citizens from a nation-wide public health crisis that is far more audacious than the annual media circus around Diwali in Delhi. Indian environmental laws currently do not mandate health impact assessments. Moratoriums in critically polluted industrial areas were successively lifted from 2013 onwards without baseline health studies.

One thing is for certain- no part of the country is immune, not even its economy. The Lancet Commission estimates that welfare losses from pollution comprise 6.2% of global economic output.

It remains to be seen if the most powerful citizens of Delhi, whenever they choose to inhabit the same ‘very poor’ airspace, will finally break with the great Indian tradition of burying their heads in the haze. As India – the world’s fourth largest carbon emitter  goes into COP23 where mitigation will be a key item on the agenda, it’s essential that India begins acknowledging not just the mortality figures in Lancet’s studies but also their connection to fossil-fuel and industrial emissions that it has facilitated through its short-sighted policy dilutions. Along with stepping up its monitoring efforts in urban, rural and industrial blindspots, it must begin with enforcing thermal power emission standards, mandate health impact assessments and Graded Response Action Plans (GRAP) everywhere, and not just in Delhi, two days before Diwali.

A Swacch Bharat is one where Indians are not treated like quarter-life citizens, and a nation-wide right to breathe is guaranteed.

Aruna Chandrasekhar is a researcher and photojournalist working on issues of development, land alienation, indigenous rights and corporate accountability in India for the last six years. She tweets at @aruna_sekhar.