As many other metros and non-metros see a significant drop in air quality, Sunday Times speaks to experts about the way ahead
When special educator Anuja Ball decided to move back to India from the US in 2019, she and her family picked Pune as their city of choice keeping in mind its clean air and good weather They could not have been more wrong In the last year. Bali’s husband has developed asthma from the construction dust that hangs over the city while she has a persistent allergic cough “I don’t go out anywhere unless necessary I have barely been able to speak in the last few days,” she says. But the couple’s biggest fear is their son’s health “I am always on red alert constantly checking on whether he is feeling feverish or breathless,” she says. Last week discussions around the dining table veered around moving out of Pune to a “cleaner” city “But where,” Bali asks.
Ball’s anxiety is not misplaced. Up until a few years ago, a growing tribe of people or climate nomads were leaving (or at least discussing it) polluted metro cities like Delhi to shift to smaller, cleaner cities in search of clean air. But as Punekars found last week, another city doesn’t necessarily mean a respite from pollution. Nor does a coastal city as Mumbai and Chennai residents will attest. AQI levels in these two cities peaked at 315 and 311 respectively last week which was worse than Delhi Kolkata, which is near the coast, breached the 300-mark in November and is still in the poor category while Ben galuru’s air quality in the same month saw a 40% deterioration as compared to the same period last year “When there is focus on pol lution levels in some cities, it brings a false sense of complacency that some parts of India are safer to live in than others,” says Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director (research & advocacy) at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).
Air quality levels across the country, not just in urban centres, have been dipping for some time now. It is just that people are now sitting up and taking notice, adds Sunil Dahiya, analyst with Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA).
Disability rights activist and writer Ab hishek Anicca, who moved to Patna from Delhi last year, found to his horror that AQI levels were hitting 400, much above Delhi’s pollution levels. This was true not just for Patna, but other cities like Motihari and Darbhanga as well Anicca, who has been grappling with long Covid symptoms, says living in Patna has not been easy “I remain closeted in my room all day not even opening a window because of the pollution. The AQI level has been severe every day last week but vehicular traffic, construction, firecrack ers everything is going on as before unlike Delhi where there are so many restrictions.
It is a huge public health problem but people seem unperturbed by it.” he says.
BAD AIR EVERYWHERE
According to the World Air Quality Report released earlier this year, 35 of the 50 global cities with toxic air are in India The June 2022 Air Quality Life Index report of the En ergy Policy Institute, University of Chicago found all of India’s 1.3 billion people live in areas where the annual average particulate pollution level exceeds the WHO guidelines More than 63% of the population live in areas that exceed the country’s own national air quality standard of 40 µg/m3.
Air pollution also makes people more vulnerable to death and disease. The report noted that pollution had shortened the life expectan cy of the average Indian by five years, relative to what it would be if the World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline for fine particulate pollution (PM2.5) of 5 µg/m3 was met. While a Delhi-NCR resident’s life is shortened by 10 years, a Lucknow resident loses 9.5 years. In contrast, a Mumbai resident could lose 3.7 years while a Punekar could lose 4.2 years of their life if the pollution levels persist.
DOING THE MINIMUM
In 2019, the government established the National Clean Air Program (NCAP) that mon itors pollution levels in 12 cities that do not meet the national ambient air quality standards between 2011-2015 The aim is to bring a 20% 30% reduction in pollution levels from PM2.5 and PM10 particles by 2004, us ing 2017 pollution levels as a base However, the goals are non-binding.
CSE’s Roychowdhury says that the gov ernment action plan needs to be deepened in scale and speed. “Rather than limiting ourselves to these 132 cities, we need to cre ate regional plans or an airshed manage ment approach to controlling pollution Instead of limiting policies to Mumbai, we need to plan for pollution sources around Mumbai, like the refineries, heavy indus tries and construction work that impact Mumbai’s air The action we see is a common minimum approach and not a trans formative one. We need time-bound targeted action and verifiable change.” she says
MORE TRACKING NEEDED
Experts say this requires denser monitoring that will provide transparency in data IIT Kanpur professor and member of the NCAP steering committee Sachchida Nath Tripathi says that if pollution levels from indus trial and construction works are monitored and controlled, emissions could be brought down by 30% -40%. He is currently helping UP and Bihar governments set up 1.370 indigenous sensors at the block level to track pollution levels at a fraction of the cost.
CREA’s Dahiya says that policymakers need to look beyond 132 NCAP cities to ad dress and improve public transportation and pollution sources with an emission load-based approach. “We cannot wait for cities to reach unacceptable emission norms before acting We need to have action plans for all states, before pollution levels become severe there,” he says.
While there have been some sectoral advances like the Bharat Stage VI transition that have brought down vehicular emissions, there have also been significant slippages repeated compliance delays with power plant emission standards, removal of government subsidies for cooking gas forcing the poor to revert to fossil fuels for household use, ineffective bans that have failed to control waste burning and pollution due to rising construction and road dust.
Until comprehensive action is taken, vulnerable populations like Anicca have no choice but to mask up and stay indoors.