Air pollution: Govt should understand, Swachh Bharat and Make in India can’t go hand-in-hand

air pollutionBy Hanzala Aman*

The 2016 Environmental Performance Index ranked India 141 out of 180 countries surveyed. EPI is unique in its approach because it incorporates many high-priority environmental issues, including resource consumption, depletion of environmental assets, pollution, and species loss among other important topics. The EPI typically ranks countries on performance indicators tracked across policy categories that include both Environmental Public health (protection of human health) and ecosystem vitality (protection of Ecosystems).

The open burning of waste is a large source of toxic air pollutants such as particulates, carbon monoxide, black carbon, dioxins, furans, and mercury. Air pollution in India is caused by fuel wood and biomass burning, burning of crop residue in agriculture fields in large scale, use of adulterated fuel, emission from vehicles and traffic congestion. India is the third largest in the emissions of greenhouse gases after China and the United States. The severity of air pollution is so much that life expectancy among Indians on an average reduces by 3.4 years while among the residents of Delhi it reduces by almost 6.3 year.

The World Health Organization considers air unsafe when average exposure to any of these matters exceeds the limit.  According to the 2016 EPI, more than 3.5 billion people – half of the world’s population – are exposed to unsafe air quality which also includes 75% of India’s population. However, Indian air quality standard limits the safe exposure to PM2.5 up to 40 μg/m3 and a recent study reveals that 50% population living in 45% districts of India is exposed at PM2.5 concentration beyond 40 μg/m3

Household Air Quality

Indoor air pollution is among the top five environmental health risks. According to various studies, household air pollution causes more deaths than outdoor with researchers even emphasizing that 40 per cent of all the diseases burden can be attributed to household air pollution.

In 2012, indoor air pollution was linked to 4.3 million deaths globally, compared with 3.7 million for outdoor air pollution. In another survey done the same year, it was found that Indoor and outdoor air pollution claimed at least 40,000 UK lives a year with a total damaging cost of £20bn.In India, too, the death due to indoor air pollution amounts to 300,000 to 400,000.

pollution-mapArtemis hospital conducted a survey which found that 76 per cent of the offices and houses in National Capital Region have unhealthy air quality and 34 percent of people staying indoors have respiratory problems.

Solid fuels are the biggest contributor to the deterioration of household air quality. It is estimated that 25-30% of primary particle pollution in India is from household fuels. Over 1 billion children live in homes where solid fuels are used in cooking and heating and in India about 64% population use solid fuels with high PM2.5 production.

A study in Andhra Pradesh, India, found that solid fuel use created a mean 24-hour average concentration of particulate matter that ranged from 73 to 732 μg/m3. Guidelines from the WHO indicate that it shouldn’t exceed 10 μg/m3. National exposure models, developed for solid fuel using household-level average estimates of PM 2.5, has found following results:

pollution gap

Outdoor Air Quality

Outdoor air pollution is also considered Group I carcinogen. Many types of research show that pollution is not only the national problem of India but also the problem of whole South Asia. India is surrounded by highly polluted neighboring countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has performed best in South Asia with the rank 108th in 2016 EPI. Around 2 billion children live in areas where outdoor air pollution exceeds international limits.

Almost 300 million children live in areas where outdoor air pollution is toxic – exceeding six times international limits. WHO reports, also suggest that urban outdoor air pollution has increased by about 8 per cent between 2008 and 2013. It has also been found that in 2012 approximately around 127,000 children under the age of 5 died from outdoor air pollution in 2012 while 531,000 died from household air pollution.

PM2.5 and PM10: On October 31st, 2016, the day after Diwali, Delhi witnessed severe air pollution which was 14-16 times higher than the safe limit prescribed. On the basis of the data retrieved from the Central Pollution Monitoring Agency,  concentrations of Particulate Matter or PM 10 (coarser pollutants) was found to be around 1,600 micrograms per cubic metre against the safe level of 100 at around 2 am in Delhi’s Anand Vihar and PM 2.5 was 14 times the safe limit. Following nine days from November 1st till November 9th, Delhi saw its worst smog very similar to the Great London smog, and is also named as Great Delhi smog. In fact, according to ‘Ambient Air Pollution Database, WHO, May 2016, India has 13 cities in worlds top 20 most polluted cities with Delhi leading the pack along with Patna, Gwalior, and Raipur respectively. Of 1215 most polluted cities recorded, 133 were Indian with 31 in top 100 most polluted cities. Figure 2 shows PM10 concentration in various mega-cities of the world.

pollution1Carbon emission: India has seen an increase of 137% in the carbon emission from 2001 to 2013 while China has observed an increase of 191%. Again from 2014-2016, carbon emission increased in India by 2%. Between 1971 and 2014, total CO2 emission in India has increased by more than 1100% with 181 million tons in 1971 to 2190 million tons in 2014. In 2014, carbon emission from India accounted for 6.78% of total global emission.

Nitrogen Oxides: From 1997 to 2011, NO2 emission in India increased by 28% while Nitrogen Use Efficiency decreased by almost 32%.

Sulphur Dioxide (SO2): According to recent studies it was found that SO2 emission in India from 2005-2012 increased by 71% while the SO2 burden on the environment increased by 63%.

Consequences of Air Pollution

There is concrete evidence that air pollution leads to low birth-weight, tuberculosis, ischemic heart disease, cataracts, asthma and nasopharyngeal and laryngeal cancers. New research has found that air pollution might also affect cognitive development. PM2.5 are so small that when inhaled they can enter the bloodstream, and recent medical research indicates that it can cause the degeneration of blood-brain barriers, leading to oxidative stress, neuro-inflammation and damage of neural tissue. Air pollution is linked to diseases and infections that kill around600,000 children under 5 years of age per year. A study even shows that about 2.2 million school children in Delhi are growing up with irreversible lung damage which they will never recover.

The number of premature deaths due to outdoor air pollution is projected to increase from3 million people globally in 2010 to a global total of6 to 9 million people in 2060. The number of cases of bronchitis is projected to increase substantially, going from 12 to 36 million new cases per year for children aged 6 to 12 and from 3.5 to 10 million cases for adults.

Total welfare losses due to air pollution in India amounted to more than 500 billion USD (~8.5% of country’s GDP) in the year 2013 (381% increase from 1990). Total welfare costs of air pollution in the world is expected to increase from 3160 billion USD in 2015 to 18300 – 25330 billion USD in 2060 (as per 2010 PPP exchange rates).


Three basic strategies to reduce pollutant concentrations in indoor air are source control, ventilation, and air cleaning. Under source control, we can reduce emissions through the use of cleaner fuels, such as liquid petroleum gas and electricity. Under ventilation, air is exchanged between the inside and outside of a building through the introduction of outdoor air. Air cleaning can be done with the help of mechanical air cleaners. Planting trees as much as possible might help in tackling air pollution in general.

Some policies and measures suggested by OECD are making pollution more costly than greener alternatives, removing environmentally harmful subsidies, devising effective regulations and standards, encouraging green innovation and integrating environmental objectives in economic and sectoral policies etc. Using public transport instead of private will also help mitigate pollution. The government has a good option of local and metro trains based on electricity to reduce carbon load as id evident by the case of The Delhi Metro.


India, in spite of being better in GDP per PPP than many countries, has done very poor in the 2016 EPI.  In fact, if we compare the 2016 EPI reports with 2016 Global Peace Index (GPI) in which India (coincidentally and interestingly) again ranks 141; we observe that India has done worse than various less peaceful countries like Iraq, Nigeria Libya, Ukraine, Egypt, Syria and several others in overall EPI. This brings us to the construe the fact that it is the willingness of the government rather than its GDP or stability to act against pollution.

Not any major initiative has been taken by the Indian Government to tackle the air pollution. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) was launched by Government of India on October 2nd, 2014 to reduce the pollution but exactly one week before on September 25th, 2014; Government also launched “Make in India Initiative” which hopes to make India a production hub. Production will also mean putting our already vulnerable environment further at risk.

The government needs to understand that “Swachh Bharat” and “Make in India” cannot go hand in hand. Rather, Central Government along with the State Governments should create and launch strict policies and measures to cope with the menace called Air pollution.

India, on October 2nd, 2016, has ratified the Paris Agreement with the aim to deal with greenhouse gases emissions mitigation, adaptation, and finance starting in the year 2020. The declaration, as given by the government, is:

“The Government of India declares its understanding that, as per its national laws; keeping in view its development agenda, particularly the eradication of poverty and provision of basic needs for all its citizens, coupled with its commitment to following the low carbon path to progress, and on the assumption of unencumbered availability of cleaner sources of energy and technologies and financial resources from around the world; and based on a fair and ambitious assessment of global commitment to combating climate change, it is ratifying the Paris Agreement.”

India has also recently unveiled largest solar panel facility in the world at Kamuthi, Tamil Nadu which has a capacity of 648 MW and covers an area of 10 sq km. In a bid to curbe air pollution in National capital Region, Supreme Court banned the sale of firecrackers. Badarpur Thermal Power Plant was also ordered to stop functioning till January 31st, 2017. For a few days all the construction works were also ordered stop. Let’s hope that government follows its agreement and work towards making the world much cleaner and safer place to live in.

*Studied Agriculture Sciences from SHUATS, Allahabad, and currently free lances as a writer and Hindi-Urdu-English translator.

These are excerpts. Read full research paper HERE

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