By Vaagisha Das:
Air pollution is nothing new to us – we were introduced to it in association with noise pollution, water pollution and the ozone layer, and we studied these in science classes with an air of distanced fascination. After all, if we couldn’t actually see any of it happening around us, there wasn’t much cause for concern, we reasoned, holding a handkerchief to our mouth while passing a busy street. The black smoke billowing out of autos was a minor inconvenience, but it would dissipate soon, and it was easy to go back to our ‘out of sight, out of mind’ philosophy.
However, a recent study by the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz puts things terrifyingly into perspective. The survey shows that Delhi, India’s most polluted city, will overtake Beijing, the world’s most polluted city, in the number of deaths caused by premature pollution in the next ten years. And if this trend continues, Kolkata will be one step ahead by 2050, with a death toll of more than half a lakh. In India, the cause of these skyrocketing levels has been attributed to partial combustion of biofuels such as wood or cow dung. Since a majority of India’s population cannot afford gas cylinders, burning such substances seems to be the only option available to them, and little can be done to regulate it. Such fine particles in the air are what consequently lead to breathing problems by permeating into the lungs and the blood vessels, which in turn cause respiratory diseases and lung cancer that is slowly but surely killing thousands.
Globally, Beijing decided to set an example by announcing that six heavily polluting industries including iron and steel, cement and petrochemicals would have to comply with “special” emission limits from the start of March 2014. In further attempts to reduce air pollution, it removed “yellow label” vehicles that were registered before the end of 2005, and set limits on the consumption of coal, to be enforced by the local government. All this happened in the wake of the ‘airpocalypse‘ – the smog scare in 2013 that showed the level of air pollution to be “beyond index”. The U.S.A., however, did not need such a trigger to enforce its set of regulations regarding air pollution – these specify the amount of air pollutants present, and any increase in their levels can be declared an ’emergency’, with abatement measures to be undertaken accordingly.
The high pollution levels in Delhi would suggest that there are no such similar measures here, but that would be wrong. Banning outdated engines in cars, as well as setting up mobile enforcement teams to monitor vehicles not having PUC certificates would be two of such regulations. In addition to this, limits on emissions have been set on industries. However, the government cannot undertake this arduous task alone – the citizens have to help. Some suggestions include a drastic reduction in the use of chemical pollutants like aerosols, cleaning agents and pesticides, as well as keeping a check on their vehicles’ engines. Carpooling is an efficient solution for reducing our carbon footprint, and the metro in Delhi provides a safe mode of mass transit. One cannot predict an easy or effective solution to the biofuel problem; thereby the most that can be done is hope for readily available CNG in the wake of urbanisation.
Air pollution is now the fifth biggest killer in India. It is about time that we ensure that the environment does not emerge as the loser in this race for industrialisation.
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