Last year, Delhi’s urban populace which had largely been apathetic towards combating pollution woke up to news reports of dangerously high levels of toxins in the air they breathe. The level of pollution was so high that the government asked schools to shut because studies found that more than one million of the capital’s children would never gain full lung functionality. The Delhi government brought out the odd-even plan to bring down the level of pollution for a short term. After overwhelming support, a second instalment of the same was instated last week.
The effectiveness of the plan in bringing down pollution as a whole is debatable and the mass appeal can be ascribed to the reduction in traffic. 20% of Delhi’s pollutants come from vehicles especially the ones that run on diesel. The plan could bring down pollution from this source for a short term. Even with the plan in action, a look at recent air quality data suggests that the amount of toxins in the air has been dangerously high.
The data shows the amount of just two of many pollutants and it is evident that the levels have been higher than national standards in most areas. It is to be noted that the WHO standards for the same are more stringent than the Indian national standards.
Delhi’s pollution is just the tip of the iceberg. 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are found in India. Reports from cities like Mumbai, suburban Chennai have shown worse air quality readings when compared to Delhi. Even then, the efforts of the government in combating such an imminent threat seems very minimal.
Unabated pollution has long-ranging effects on health. As seen, the children and the elderly are most sensitive to even mildly dangerous levels of pollution. A study by the OECD released in 2014 showed that, between 2005 and 2010, the number of deaths due to air pollution rose by 12% in India when compared to China’s 5% and is probably larger in the following years. The National Health Profile report of 2015 showed a 30% increase in acute respiratory infections from 2010 when air quality slipped from bad to worse. A more recent survey showed that more than half of the deaths due to air pollution occurs in India and China.
With one of the lowest per capita health expenditures in the world, India is ill-equipped to face an epidemic of respiratory problems arising due to pollution. The poor who are the most exposed and vulnerable will be at the receiving end of the impacts. Failure to take measures to stem this issue can lead to very high human resource and economic costs. Economists and environmentalists have calculated that air pollution cuts down the country’s GDP by, at least, 3% and thus preventing us from reaching the full demographic potential.
One of the objectives of the twelfth five-year plan is to make sure that the ‘States meet National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) in urban areas by 2017’. With just one year left, there seems to have been little progress.
Even in Delhi where there is much impetus, there are only about 10-12 locations with air quality monitors. Other than Delhi, a small number of monitors are found only in about a handful cities like Mumbai, Chennai, Jaipur, etc. With increasing level of urbanisation, the absence of air quality data prevents us from taking any concrete steps and it exposes more people who have no knowledge about the level of pollution.
Availability of such data can also alert civil society to confront the government in case of inaction. A Greenpeace India campaign has been launched to press the government towards implementation of monitors in all urban areas and release of real-time pollution data to the public. Moreover, such transparency has been seen to increase awareness and reduce a significant amount of pollution which has been proved by studies carried out in China.
When the data becomes available, it is time for the government to develop general and local solutions that work in the long term. A key step towards this is the conversion from fossil fuel usage for to renewable energy sources and solutions should be formulated in a bottom-up manner depending on availability and needs. Incentivisation of rooftop solar equipment, increased use of public transport that runs on clean energy are some ideas that have been proven to work, especially in the urban setting.
Despite much fanfare about smart cities, there seems to be no focus on the pollution control. With more and more migrations to cities which puts more people at immediate risk, India has to realise that it has to cut emissions quickly not just for its international commitments but for the sake of the health of its people.