Youth Ki Awaaz

There’s An Urgent Need To Fix India’s Declining Air Quality

“Cleaning our surroundings is also one way of serving Mother India, it’s with small chores that big goals are accomplished” -Prime Minister Narendra Modi

According to WHO’s World Global Ambient Air, the air quality in India is bad and is becoming a serious public health issue with serious repercussions on the quality of life and the economy.

The database shows that air pollution is a global problem nine out of ten people breathe highly polluted air and about 80% of the people living in cities have to breathe in poor air that exceeds health standards.

However, there are some places where the air quality is worse than others. Eleven out of the twelve most polluted of these cities are in India. Kanpur, with a population of 3 million, tops the list with an average of 319 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5 per year. It is closely followed by PM 10, NO2, CO, and Ozone. The only pollutant to comply with the permissible national standards is SO2. The sources for PM2.5 are open flames and diesel exhausts. They can stay in the air longer and penetrate deeper into the lungs than larger particles. This is why they are more hazardous and a high priority concern for health and government agencies.

The source of PM 2.5 is the burning of coal, and wood for cooking, vast stretches of hills and mountains act as basins that trap toxic air making it too dangerous to breathe.

Toxic air is a problem in almost all countries. However, it is the developing countries that bear the brunt of pollution as the problem gets more serious with teeming populations living in slums and makeshift houses without adequate measures to combat the hazardous effects of air toxicity.

The underprivileged have to rely on cookstoves, heating fuel, and kerosene for lighting and heating. These are all common sources of pollution in developing countries. Often lax enforcement of standards for car exhausts, crop burning, or dust from construction sites leads to more particulates in the air.

The government is implementing reforms to keep pollution in check as dirty air has become an increasingly volatile public concern. The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) is one of the flagship schemes of the Narendra Modi government. The scheme aims at five crores LPG connections to BPL families with the support of Rs 1,600 per connection in the next three years. Unlike China, governing air pollution has proved to be much more difficult in India with multiple layers of government and differences between the state and the central government. In India, there is a gap in air pollution policy that restricts its implementation. Moreover, outrage over deteriorating air quality has been restricted.

The National Capital of Delhi with a population of approximately nineteen million is facing a severe air quality crisis, the heavy pollution often forcing flight cancellations, road accidents, schools have to be closed often as children like the elderly are a highly vulnerable group. The toxic air has turned Delhi into a “gas chamber,” and last year a public health emergency was declared.

But it is not the urban areas alone that are to blame, often the hazardous air that blankets cities originate in rural areas as was seen in case of crop and stubble burning by farmers in Punjab and Haryana. Significantly, very often the villages are as badly affected by toxic air as the cities. To give a clearer picture of the scale of the problem outdoor air pollution was linked to 1.1 million deaths, while indoor air pollution caused by the burning of solid fuels such as wood, dung, and crop residues in people’s homes for cooking and heat was the cause of another 977,000 deaths.

About two-thirds of India’s population lives outside of cities, and 80% of these households rely on biomass like wood and dung for cooking and heating. This coupled with agricultural practices like crop and stubble burning leads to increasing smokes that often drifts over metro cities like Chennai and Mumbai in the south and Delhi, Lucknow, Kanpur in the north. Here it mixes with exhaust fumes, factory emissions, and dust from construction sites. Unlike the southern cities, northern areas are landlocked and do not have the advantage of being close to the sea.

While anti-pollution laws exist in India, they are not enforced well. For example, the ban on firecrackers is hardly implemented beyond a few areas. Same goes for stubble burning, it is difficult for the urban elite to convince the village folk to change their practices just as it is difficult for rural dwellers to ask the urban folks to cut down on vehicle usage.

Few short-term measures can be adopted like avoiding morning walks, planting air-purifying indoor plants, and making sure that children and the elderly restrict outdoor activities. However, these are not enough.

The effects of air pollution are not immediate but slowly creep into our bodies, affecting not just our hearts and lungs but slowing down our cognition skills. Air pollution is also the leading risk factor for early death and disability, contributing to conditions such as stroke, heart disease, respiratory infections, and lung cancer.

While there can be no magic pill to bring about sudden change, there is need to introduce measures to control air pollution that include clean energy, reduction in vehicle usage, clean technologies in industries, planting more trees. More monitoring stations are required. We also need to focus on regions in the country, where people have more exposure to toxic levels of pollution like Delhi. A multi-sectoral approach, driven by environment and health data, science, and evidence so that people’s can breathe in healthier air in both urban and rural areas.