A recent report by the World Health Organization found that air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to health. Air pollution is responsible for one in every nine deaths, killing almost three million people in a year. The report has declared a public health emergency based on data used from across the world.
The figures tell an alarming tale about the air quality in India. With extremely high levels of particulate matter, measuring 10 microns or less, Delhi’s pollution levels have been a problem for some time now. But a disproportionately large number of Indian cities have extremely polluted air when compared to any other country. Vivek Chattopadhyaya of the Centre for Science and Environment said that WHO has been consistently pointing out the alarming level of pollution in India and what a major concern for health it poses. Air pollution, Chattopadhyaya said, is the largest killer in India, causing a lot of short-term or chronic respiratory diseases.
The Wire spoke to Radhika Khosla of the Centre for Policy Research, who said, “As has now been well established, air pollution poses one of the greatest health risks to urban and rural residents across the country.”
According to the WHO database, seventeen cities are from India are among the top fifty cities with the highest levels of particulate matter measuring 10 microns (PM10). China, Bahrain and Pakistan follow, with five cities each.
Smaller, and more dangerous, is PM2.5, or particulate matter that is only 2.5 microns. India has twenty two cities among the top 50 cities around the world with the highest levels of PM2.5. Following India is China, with eight such cities on the list.
Among the Indian cities, Gwalior has the highest levels of particulate matter with an annual mean of 329 for PM10, while Delhi figures slightly lower down the list. Many of the smaller cities have come up on the list with levels that are well above the WHO air quality guidelines. The Central Pollution Control Board had prepared a list of 95 cities in India that are persistently polluted, but failed to much to address the problem, said Chattopadhyaya.
Policy measures to address air pollution has not yielded convincing results. While several measures have been tried, such as AAP’s odd-even policy in Delhi, they have been sporadic and not sustainable. Khosla said, “Government programs aimed at cleaner local environments, managing vehicular pollution and enhancing air quality monitoring are all steps in the right direction. But a viable and effective long-term solution will require an urgent government response that takes on the issue’s entrenched politics.”
Nationally, the auto-fuel policy aimed at reducing vehicular emissions has not been effected with the vigour that it needed, said Chattopadhyaya. Especially control over diesel vehicles, which cause more pollution, has not happened and regulations are dodged in some way. “India is at least seven to ten years behind Europe in lowering emission standards.” Chattopadhyaya said.
Furthermore, he said that in terms of industrial emissions, there is a definitive lack of accountability with the industries shirking responsibility by claiming a large amount of investment will be required to effectively control the pollution they cause. “Nobody talks about the damage that they will do, though,” said Chattopadhyaya, “and policy approach is very weak.”
He added that garbage management is very rudimentary in India and is usually burnt or catches fire itself because of excessive methane emissions. This, of course, further adds to India’s pollution problem. Multiple departments with overlapping or indistinct duties make bureaucratic lapses easy in the process of implementing any policy meant to address the problem, again making accountability an issue.
Given the kind of numbers that India is dealing with, controlling air quality will require systematised governance, with schemes that take into account the enormity of the problem across the country. On October 2, India ratified the Paris Agreement on climate change, which means that by 2020, India will be required to have made significant infrastructural advances in its capacity to deal with climate change.
In terms of how the problem can be addressed, Khosla said, “It is important to acknowledge the complexity of the air quality challenge. There is no single pollutant source responsible — road dust, construction activities, waste burning, vehicle emissions, diesel generators, industries, power plants, brick kilns and biomass-based cooking, all contribute. The solution space will require public and political action, and needs to address each of these sources, accounting for their exposure risks and respective enforceability issues.”
*All data is from the period 2009-2015