Air pollution crisis


The NDA-government does not appear to be serious in tackling the issue of air pollution crisis that is afflicting all the major urban centres in the country while the air quality in rural and far flung areas is no better for the people to breath. In this context, it is arguable that the policy planning system has gone haywire and no strong steps have been initiated to check the air quality for the people in the urban centres or elsewhere. Something is seriously wrong somewhere that is why this crisis is gripping the metropolitan cities. The situation is worsening in the small towns also where the number of small vehicles is going up with the passage of everyday and urban transport facilities are lacking for the commuters causing more air pollution. The recent report from the World Health Organisation (WHO) highlights not only how widespread air pollution is in urban India, but also how deficient air quality monitoring is. The report, which summarised 2016 data for 4,300 cities, ranks 14 Indian cities among the 20 most polluted ones on this planet. Unfortunately, Delhi comes in at number six, Kanpur, Faridabad, Varanasi, Gaya and Patna are ranked ahead of it, by PM 2.5 levels. And yet, Kanpur, Faridabad and several other pollution-choked cities have only one PM 2.5 monitoring station each, while Delhi has several. The WHO research report gets around this problem by using alternative data sources such as satellite remote sensing and chemical transport models, along with ground-monitoring stations. This exercise makes it clear that air pollution is not a problem of large metropolitan cities alone, even though they have traditionally been the focus of mitigation efforts. Variations in data quality exist across the world on air quality and pollution caused by various factors. The European countries have the most extensive monitoring network, countries in Africa and the Western Pacific region perform poorly. This means data from these regions are of poor quality, and likely underestimates, resulting in an under-count of the disease burden as well. The WHO report puts the global death toll from air pollution at seven million a year, attributable to illnesses such as lung cancer, pneumonia and ischemic heart disease. In the year 2016 alone, the report says, around 4.2 million people died owing to outdoor air pollution, while 3.8 million people succumbed to dirty cooking fuels such as wood and cow dung. About a third of these deaths occurred in Southeast Asian countries, which include India. Once air quality monitoring improves in these areas, the numbers will likely be revised upwards. As such the planning process is not aimed at checking this situation on emergency basis. But despite all the shortcomings, there is some hope when remedial measures are being initiated at different levels for improving the air quality. The report had words of praise for India’s scheme, which has provided 37 million women living Below Poverty Line with LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) connections. But the affordability of LPG by the rural people is also to be considered as alternate fuels come for free in rural and far flung areas. Such schemes will also help cut the indoor air pollution that plagues much of rural India, which is not covered in the WHO analysis. It is important to note, though, that rural India has problems beyond inefficient cook-stoves and fuel used for this purpose. As the recently published draft National Clean Air Programme noted, there is currently no air pollution monitoring stations in rural areas of India. This does not mean outdoor air pollution is not a problem. Studies have shown that ozone levels are higher in rural areas, as is pollution from insecticide use and crop-burning. The WHO has asked Southeast Asian countries to take swift action to tackle the twin problems of indoor and outdoor pollution. India must realise that its problems are larger than the WHO estimates, and take the call to action seriously. Apart from this, the outdoor pollution needs a serious attention of the government and formulate a policy at the national level and improve upon the urban transport system, that is affordable and convenient for the common masses. As such, very little progress has been made by the government on this front.