The extent of air pollution in India is turning into a public health and economic crisis

air pollution3

Excerpts from the Greenpeace report, “Airpocalypse II: Assessment of Air Pollution in Indian Cities”:

Delhi still remains the top-most polluted city followed by many more towns like nearby Faridabad and Bhiwadi and far off Dehradun, Varanasi, and Patna. These towns are strewn along the fertile and heavily populated Indo-Gangetic basin. Together these critically polluted cities point to not just the need for long-term action plans but also cry for a strict emergency response in an immediate, short-term and time-bound manner to bring pollution levels down drastically and ward off an impending health and economic emergency.

Though a graded response action plan (GRAP) for Delhi-NCR region has been notified, the implementation of it remains disappointingly poor. The long-term action plan for Delhi-NCR is still being discussed, leaving the rest of the country virtually in the cold. This is despite the fact that the CPCB has sent notices to many states to come up with action plans to bring pollution levels down. As we will see in the following pages of this report, most pollution control boards lack the capacity and understanding of how to even draft meaningful policies to curb air pollution.

Unlike in the North many cities in the southern part of the country may not need emergency response plans but most of them do need long term action plans to bring pollution levels down below NAAQS limits and aim to meet WHO standards for air quality. What is palpably clear is that none of the cities/states have measurable targets aimed at reducing pollution levels. Most actions suggested untill now are just initiatives on paper that have no monitoring mechanism to achieve their estimated benefit through the implementation of targeted policies.

The good news is that the central government has formulated a National Clean Air Programme (NCAP). This is supposed to seek and ensure source-wise solutions in a time-bound manner for the entire country. Though the government has almost doubled the number of real-time monitoring stations spread across the country it has a long way to go to ensure clean and safe air to ward off the hazards faced by the country and its people.

An action plan should have the following components:

  • Institute robust monitoring of air quality across the country and make the data publicly available in real time. This should be coupled with a health advisory and ‘red alerts’ for bad-air days so that the public is able to take steps to protect their health and the environment. Measures like shutting down schools, reduction of traffic, shutting down power plants and industries etc should automatically come into force as soon as air quality deteriorates beyond a level and takes alarming proportions.
  • Use the data as a basis tofine-tune pollution reduction strategies that must, inter alia seek to improve public transport and reduce petrol/diesel vehicle use, strengthen enforcement to take polluting vehicles off the roads, introduce higher fuel standards (Bharat VI), enforce stricter emission regulations and improved efficiency for thermal power plants and industries, move from diesel generators to rooftop solar power backup, increase use of clean, renewable energy, offer incentives for electric vehicles, dust removal from roads, regulate construction activities and stop burning of biomass and waste.

air pollution2These strategies should be formalised into a time-bound action plan with clearly defined targets and penalties to ensure accountability. While some actions might need to be city or region-specific, these are going to be under a broad range of actions that will be universally applicable. Public participation is critical in reducing air pollution along with centralised actions and policies rolled out by the Government at national and regional levels.

Severe air pollution has been disrupting everyday life in India. This is more so in big cities during the winter though smaller cities and the villages forming the periphery of many cities can hardly be said to be any better off. In 2015 air pollution (PM2.5) levels in India increased so rapidly that they overtook those in China.

Pollution levels are increasing across the country and it is more worrying in north India where its impact on health is feared to be rampant. Notwithstanding the alarming air pollution levels across the country the emphasis so far has more been on the Delhi-NCR region. This is despite the acceptance of the fact that the major part of Delhi’s pollution is coming from outside its borders, meaning neighbouring states cannot said to be in the safe zone. So much so that pollution levels in other states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra are also increasing quite a bit.

The recent submission by the Honorable Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Dr Harshvardhan, in the Rajya Sabha that the MOEF&CC has prepared a National Clean Air Programme, strengthens the argument and the fact that air pollution is posing a national health emergency today. However, the country is yet to come to terms with the fact that air pollution is a national problem.

Our actions outside Delhi-NCR still seem to be to city boundary specific and missing the regional nature and proportions of pollution. Such a selective approach cannot be effective in tackling the health emergency that rampant air pollution has come to pose. We as a country today have to understand air pollution comprehensively and have to win the fight against it.

The extent of air pollution in India is turning into a public health and economic crisis. There are increasing numbers of people who die a premature death every year due to increasing levels of pollution. Deaths due to air pollution are only a fraction less than the number of deaths caused by tobacco usage.

The Global Burden of Disease (GBD), a comprehensive regional and global research programme with 500 researchers representing over 300 institutions and 50 countries, has estimated that 3,283 Indians died every single day due to outdoor air pollution in India in 2015. This brings the number of deaths due to air pollution in the country in 2015 to 11.98 lakh.

On the economic front, loss of productivity and the forced closures of schools and industries have already started impacting the economy. The World Bank estimates that India loses around 3% of its GDP due to air pollution. This makes air pollution one of the biggest issues to fight if we are to protect peoples’ lives, ensure public health and save the economy.

air pollution1Air pollution is a complex issue, requiring an array of solutions. There are many sources that contribute to pollution across the country. Depending on region and climatic conditions, the contribution of different sources of pollution add up to the overall scourge of pollution. This stretches over vast parts of the country though it is quite clear that irrespective of where you live, burning of fossil fuels (coal and oil) contributes majorly to air pollution levels across regions.

The Central Pollution Control Board has instituted the National Air Quality Monitoring Programme (NAMP). Under the NAMP, three air pollutants viz., Sulphur Dioxide (SO2), Nitrogen Dioxide (NOɽ) and Particulate Matter size equal to or less than 10 micron (PMɼɻ), have been identified for regular monitoring at all the locations. The NAMP network presently comprises 683 operating monitoring stations located in 300 cities/towns in 29 states and 6 union territories across the country.

Out of 280 cities for which the PM10 data was available for 2015 or 2016, 228 (> 80 % of the cities/towns where Air Quality Monitoring data was available) cities were not complying to the NAAQS standard of 60 µg/m³ as prescribed by CPCB for annual permissible levels and none of the cities were complying to the WHO set annual standard of 20 µg/m³.

Based on the pollution levels for years between 2011 and 2015 Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) issued direction to states to formulate action plans to reduce air pollution levels across 94 non-attainment cities spread across the country. These plans were to be made during 2016 by the SPCBs/Pollution Control Committees (PCCs). The direction included specific actions for Vehicular emission control; re-suspension of road dust and other fugitive emission control; control of emissions from biomass/crop residue/garbage/municipal waste burning; control of industrial emissions; control of air pollution from construction and demolition activities and other steps to control air pollution.

As per the directions the actions were required to be taken within a specific timeline, ranging from action on the directions within a week to six months. As per the update with us most of the pollution control boards forwarded the letter to the relevant departments for further actions. Apart from Delhi-NCR where a Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) has come into force and in Lucknow where the same plan has been copied for Lucknow city (on paper only – its implementation still seems to be a distant dream), no other city seems to be taking any action of any worth against the polluters.

During 2017 Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) also ordered preparation of action plans for multiple cities reeling under pollution in the state. These are reported to be currently under preparation. So no real progress could be achieved vis-à-vis reducing the pollution levels in the cities of Maharashtra and the plan formulated thus far does not have a regional and comprehensive nature to control air pollution dogging many cities and regions of the state.

None of the plans untill now seem to have time-bound targets or specified a percentage for the reduction in air pollution levels in a scheduled manner, say in two, three, or five years under the watch of a competent authority assigned to be responsible for the onerous task.

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One thought on “The extent of air pollution in India is turning into a public health and economic crisis

  1. Alongwith action plans, accountability is needed. The cities are being polluted by haphazard industrial development while rural and forest areas are being occupied by the industrialists to establish manufacturing firms. Thus, almost all the country is being polluted by corporate industrial tycoons. Hence, strict monitoring and follow up measures are essential.


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