Air Pollution: What needs to be done to tame the silent killer

In new episode of Checks and Balances, Geetanjali Minhas speaks with experts to better understand the causes and solutions

GN Bureau | December 1, 2023

#transport   #Climate Change   #Environment   #Mumbai   #Delhi   #Air pollution   #economy  

Air pollution in Delhi has been in headlines, as every year in recent times. Mumbai too has suffered from air pollution, despite being a coastal city. Apart from many other metros such as Bangalore and Kolkata, tier-I and -II cities and rural areas also have high pollution levels. Every year reports and studies point to health, economic and environment hazards of air pollution.  Exhaust and fumes, from vehicular traffic as well as manufacturing factories, are among the prime culprits.

Economic growth finally rests on energy, and much of it comes from coal-based power stations. On the eve of COP 28 in Dubai, India has maintained that its reliance on coal is not going to reduce any time soon, even as it has been promoting alternative sources of energy. A large number of people in India are dependent on biomass combustion for their daily needs of cooking, heating and several other needs which emit different kind of pollutants.

Amongst air pollutants like nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide etc, PM 10 and PM 2.5 are the most hazardous. PM10 are the coarse particles and PM 2.5 are fine particles, thinner than a single strand of hair. When one inhales polluted air, PM 2.5, through lungs, mixes with the blood stream causing cardiovascular and respiratory (COPD) diseases, skin irritation, headache and other health problems including cancer. Other than normal adults, air pollution affects children, elderly, pregnant women, animals, plants and environment.  

Findings of Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), published in August 2023 by the Energy Policy Institute at University of Chicago, say that the entire Indian population of 1.3 billion people lives in areas with annual average particulate pollution level exceeding WHO limit of 5 μg/m3.

In the latest episode of Checks and Balances, Geetanjali Minhas of Governance Now spoke to two experts to better understand the factors responsible for air pollution across India, possible solutions and the challenges ahead.

You can watch the episode here:

Speaking about the sources of air pollution, Shambhavi Shukla, Programme Manager, Clean Air Unit at the Centre for Science and Environment, says across India, the number of sources is continuously increasing and pollution is also increasing because of the increasing population.

She says that while the Construction and Demolition Waste Management Rules were notified in 2016, these are not properly followed, dust is not being managed, and waste is dumped on the roads and grounds, causing a high level of dust pollution as well. Swachh Bharat Mission has targets to be completed by 2026, but there is lack of legacy waste management; segregation and management of waste in every city. Shukla said that the burning of waste is emitting methane, another major and continuous source of air pollution.      

She added that most thermal power plants are running on coal, a high polluting fuel, besides fuels like petroleum and furnace oil which have very high sulfur are being used in industries. Some states have formulated their approved list of their fuels, but many states and cities are using fossil fuels. She also said that under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, cooking gas cylinders are distributed to poor people, but “the problem is, you can give subsidy once to a customer for buying LPG cylinder, but refuelling costs are so high that they cannot afford on a regular basis.”

Pointing to a major cause, the rapidly increasing number of vehicles, she said there are no restrictions or a restriction mechanism to control the number of vehicles on road, causing traffic congestion and jams everywhere. “Lack of implementation, inadequate speed and the scale of action at local,  regional, city and state level is the only reason causing the increase in pollution levels.”

Professor Sachchidanand Tripathi, Department of Civil Engineering and Department of Sustainable Energy Engineering, IIT Kanpur, says we need to either reduce energy consumption or shift into cleaner energy. Importantly, we need better governance, robust air quality management, better urban planning and access to public transport and encourage people to use public transport. He iterates better interagency and interstate coordination.

Studies say the transport sector contributes 50% of air pollution in Delhi. After the Supreme Court interventions, Delhi has reduced air pollution by 25% to 30%, banning power plants, use of clean fuels in industries, Bharat VI emission standards for vehicles etc. Yet it still needs to reduce air pollution by around 60% for safe levels.

Besides the above factors, at the onset of winter every year, the burning of the remains of paddy crop in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh leads to the rise in air pollutant levels in Delhi. Shukla says this happens as farmers do not have a choice, because they have a very short span to sow new crops.

“They tend to burn that stubble, causing pollution.  There are systems in place, for example, they have procured a lot of machines [to remove the stubble], but not every farmer can afford those machines. The government has initiated steps to generate power from the stubble, but a lot of infrastructure development and funding needs to be rerouted through mechanisms, so that farmers do not burn the stubble. Awareness is needed as many farmers do not know of existence of these policies.”

To reduce rising air pollution levels substantially by 2025-26, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has implemented NCAP, however, Shambhavi Shukla says, “Being in CSE working with different state governments and central government, we can clearly see that the state doesn't have a target in place.”

As an example she says, states and cities report that sweeping machines havr been run on particular road kilometres. “But right now, all the roads in cities  are not appropriate to actually run those machines. These machines only run on those roads which are properly constructed.”
Measures like ‘Odd-Even’ and GRAP, implemented in Delhi, are emergency, “Band-Aid” solutions. On cloud seeding, a method being explored by governments now, Professor Tripathi says, “Cloud seeding emerges as a choice. It does not have side or adverse effects. If it works, it can bring relief to a larger relatively larger area like few hundred kilometres.”

Speaking on health and economic impacts of air pollution, Prof Tripathi says estimates for economic costs due to health burden or hospitalisation and days off for India are astronomical due to its huge population running to a few hundred billion dollars. “If you need to bring Grade III, where all the construction activities are halted, then that cost is over and above... there will always be competing economic interests, financial interests….” He notes.

The Indian air quality standards are much higher than the WHO prescribed standards. The government at present is working on revising the National Ambient Air Quality Standards and has constituted a committee towards the same, says Shukla, adding: “However, at present the policy does not have proper health linkage nor is air pollution mentioned as a cause of death on morbidity certificate.”  

Like Delhi, Mumbai has been attacked by severe air pollution in recent days. Professor Tripathi, was recently invited by BMC to advise on air pollution control methods in the city. He says Mumbai’s air quality is influenced by surrounding districts, the MMRDA. It cannot avoid emissions by highly industrialised cities like Bhiwandi , Kalyan, part of Thane etc, coming into Mumbai. “It is important to deal with MMRDA with a focus on Mumbai. I suggest we should have a commission or something like that to deal with the air quality of MMRDA.”

He further adds that at present Mumbai has around 20 government AQI monitors and can now add 500 sensors across the city to cover every square km of the city. With hyper-local monitoring aided by civil society, it will help to know the situation on ground. He also said that people must have a platform to send their feedback and pictures. “Crowd-sourcing of data will help in monitoring, understanding, stringent and effective implementation,” he said.

Emphasising the need for long-term, sustainable solutions, Professor Tripathi added that in the city centre or core commercial centre, it is important to encourage public transport. Metro, Mono Rail or buses running on electricity have zero emissions and cut down on one source of emissions. It means people will use public transport, walk, cycle, make people healthier and environment cleaner.

He called for having Air Quality Management Courses in curricula and more air quality management professionals. “You need to have a good regulatory system. You need to have good technologies in place, so that you are able to take actions as much in real time as possible. Finally It has to be driven by people because end of the day, you have to have people who should become part of it to become a movement and succeed on ground.”   



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