State of Global Air 2019, published by Health Effects Institute (HEI), said exposure to outdoor and indoor air pollution contributed to over 1.2 million deaths in India in 2017. The report added that worldwide, air pollution was responsible for more deaths than many better-known risk factors such as malnutrition, alcohol abuse and physical inactivity. In India, air pollution is the third-highest cause of death among all health risks; each year, more people globally die from air pollution-related disease than from road traffic injuries or malaria.
With a current population of almost 20 million, the National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi experiences periods of extremely high air pollution levels. According to WHO survey of 1600 world cities, the air quality in Delhi is the worst of any major city in the world. In Delhi, poor quality air damages irreversibly the lungs of 2.2 million or 50 percent of all children. In November 2017, in an event known as the ‘Great Smog of Delhi’, the air pollution spiked far beyond acceptable levels. Levels of PM2.5 and PM10 particulate matter hit 999 micrograms per cubic meter, while the safe limits for those pollutants are 60 and 100 respectively.
This worst scenario of air pollution is also vividly experienced in other Indian cities. According to the WHO, India has14 out of the 15 most polluted cities in the world in terms of PM 2.5 concentrations. Other Indian cities that registered very high levels of PM2.5 pollutants are Patna, Agra, Muzzaffarpur, Srinagar, Gurgaon, Jaipur, Patiala and Jodhpur, followed by Ali Subah Al-Salem in Kuwait and a few cities in China and Mongolia.
Although there are multiple reasons, including broad effects of meteorology, vehicular emissions contribute significantly to the problem. According to some reports, 80 per cent of PM2.5 air pollution is caused by vehicular traffic. Other causes include wood-burning fires, fires on agricultural land, exhaust from diesel generators, dust from construction sites, and burning garbage and illegal industrial activities.
India has initiated major steps to address pollution sources: the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana Household LPG programme, accelerated Bharat Stage 6/VI clean vehicle standards, and the new National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) are a few key initiatives of government. NCAP is the first ever effort in the country to frame a national framework for air quality management with a time-bound reduction target. It proposes a framework to achieve a national-level target of 20-30 per cent reduction of PM2.5 and PM10 concentration by between 2017 and 2024. This is a right step forward and kindles a great deal of optimism and expectations. These and future initiatives have the potential, if fully implemented as part of a sustained commitment to air quality. Perhaps, government shall also focus on building the necessary ecosystem for implementing these initiatives.
There is an urgent need to start structured advocacy for managing the air pollution and develop an ‘’integrated ecosystem’’ which would contribute to the aspiration of sustainable and inclusive growth of India. The key components of this ‘’integrated ecosystem’’ could be robust research and development (R&D) for clean air promotion and deployment of appropriate solutions for ensuring ‘’clean air’’. Besides, implementation of stringent air pollution regulations and empowering states to take up take local action at cities level to improve air quality are also crucial.
Key stakeholders should have called on a voluntary response to air pollution and, within this context, taken up investment for promoting cleaner technologies. We must also promote innovation of low-emission and less polluting technologies and its deployment in industrial and other related sectors of Indian economy.
It is expected that similar initiatives shall be taken up by other development partners, aiming to integrate sustainability strategies into urban planning and management, which could eventually create a favourable environment for investment in infrastructure and service delivery for transforming our polluted cities to ‘’clean and sustainable cities.
Good air quality can go hand in hand with economic development, as indicated by some major cities in Latin America which meet, or approach, the WHO Air Quality Guidelines. Despite the upswing in air quality monitoring, many cities in India still lack capacity to do so. There is a particular shortage of data on air quality and its management. Hence, the government shall also focus on real time air quality monitoring and creating awareness at different level (household-industries and community level). India’s air pollution problem needs to be tackled systematically, taking an all-of-government approach, to reduce the huge burden of associated ill-health and livability in cities. This is a bigger responsibility to the newly formed government and its leadership!
Keshav C Das