Air Pollution: India again tops dubious global list

Benefits of Covid-19 lockdown frittered away

Environment

March 19, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Air Pollution: India again tops dubious global list

For the third year in a row, New Delhi has topped the world’s list of most polluted capitals (MIG Photos)

The latest global survey of the most polluted large cities in the world shows a repeat performance by India from 2019 as air pollution remains stubbornly high across large swathes of the country. It shows up the failure of the government to take steps to curb air pollution that costs millions of lives each year.

The latest index of air pollution around the world again puts an uncomplimentary spotlight on South Asia, notably India as the country has 9 of the 10 as well as 35 of the 50 most polluted cities in the world. China, by comparison, has only 7, while Pakistan 5 and Bangladesh has 2 cities in the hall of shame.

The World Air Quality Report 2020 prepared by Swiss air quality technology company IQAir in collaboration with environmental group Greenpeace gathered data for 106 countries around the world throughout the year. The pollution index was based on the average fine particulate matter PM2.5 which are airborne particles measuring less than 2.5 microns in diameter. These particles enter the bloodstream through the lungs and can cause cancer and cardiac diseases.

The latest report said that for the third year in a row New Delhi topped the world’s list of most polluted capitals, while in the list of 50 large cities with a population of over 1 million besides Hotan in China, that topped the list, 14 of the top 15 polluted cities were Indian. Ghaziabad, part of the National Capital Region, was 2nd most polluted city in the world. Besides Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh had 11 other cities on the list, including Noida and Greater Noida which also form part of NCR. However, it was Haryana that emerged as the most widely polluted state of the country with 10 cities. Faridabad and Gurugram, which are also adjacent to New Delhi figured high on the list.

Punjab fared marginally better with eight cities.

Lockdown benefits locked out

Even though the entire country went through a rigorous lockdown for over two months and movement of people and traffic was highly constrained for nearly nine months in the year 2020, the air quality levels did not show any dramatic improvement compared to the previous year. Take Ghaziabad for instance. The city’s annual average AQI was 110.2 in 2019, declined only a shade to 106.6 in 2020. Looking at the lockdown months of total April and May stayed in the high 80s and closed the year with the last three months of severe pollution with AQI standing at 157, 161 and 179 in October, November and December. On the whole, India recorded an 11 pc drop in AQI levels in the year despite the lockdown and continued restrictions on traffic.

The story was hardly any better for New Delhi as the average annual concentration of PM2.5 was 84.1, down from 98.6 in 2019. The Chinese capital, Beijing, in contrast, was way below in the list at 241st most polluted city in China, though 14th most polluted capital with an average AQI of 37.5 during the year.

Moreover, by autumn pollution levels had shot up all across northern India again, just as Ghaziabad’s data shows. In Delhi, while the Monsoon rains curbed the AQI to 35.5 in August, the level rose rather sharply to 58.9, 128, 143.6 in September, October and November, while December saw a hazardous AQI of 157.3.

It was clear that the nation which had benefitted from some of the cleanest air on record during the summer was facing the regular dangerous levels of pollution before the year ended. The levels in most parts were between 15-18 times the levels recommended by the World Health Organisation.

Indeed, instead of having capitalized on the gains of the forced drop in pollution levels due to the lockdown, in India, the situation has clearly worsened since 2019, when relatively fewer or 6 Indian cities featured in the top 10 and 21 in the top 30 polluted cities.

Pollution at what cost?

Air pollution is an expensive proposition for the country. The main sources of air pollution in northern India, and to an extent in other parts of the country as well, are transport, industry, construction, combustion of fuels for cooking, lighting and diesel-powered electricity generators. In addition to these are seasonal factors such as dust storms, forest fires and stubble burning by farmers to clear their fields after each harvest.

Of these, pollution due to the use of fossil fuels is the most pervasive and biggest problem. Various studies indicate that each year over 1 million premature deaths and 980,000 pre-term births are blamed on the high level of air pollution only from fossil fuels. The economic cost of fossil fuel-generated air pollution each year is estimated to be INR 10.7 trillion or 5.4 pc of the country’s GDP.

According to the Global Burden of Disease Report published by The Lancet, air pollution was the fifth main cause of death in India and cut life expectancy by 3.2 years for 660 million urban Indians. Though India had 18 pc of the global population, it had 26 pc of global disability affected life years due to air pollution. India’s DALY score of 1887.6 per 100,000 persons outdid China’s which was nearly half at 1088.62 and four times the United States which recorded 419.59. A report by the World Health Organisation said that residents of Delhi alone could add 9.4 years to their life expectancy if the air pollution levels met the norms set by it. 

From ignorance to inaction

Air pollution per se is not a new phenomenon in India and especially in the large cities of northern India. While a couple of decades earlier, the awareness about the health hazards posed by air pollution was low and hence policymakers did not pay much attention to it, leading to a sharp spike. However, for the past few years at least there have been numerous reports about the cost of air pollution as well as the steps that needed to be taken to curb it. But so far the governments, be it at the Centre or in the affected states, have done scarcely anything to save their populations from the toxic air.

It was finally left to the Supreme Court which in 2017 told the Central Pollution Control Board to develop a comprehensive action plan to deal with air pollution. There are various specified limits in the plan, dealing with air pollution levels and automatically some measures are meant to kick in as soon as air pollution reaches those levels. However, so far, the steps taken by the government have been perfunctory and very delayed.

Most of the steps have been half-hearted or the easy ones while some hard-nosed decisions need to be taken and implemented thoroughly. Take the odd-even scheme of the Delhi government. In a study by the Delhi Integrated Multi-modal Transit System (DIMTS), the overall traffic on roads was only 2 pc lower while the odd-even scheme was in place and the average peak hour speed of vehicles increased by only 5 pc. No wonder, the air pollution levels during the days of the schemes remained almost at the same levels as the day preceding it.

Air pollution cannot be tackled in a knee-jerk fashion. It needs to be addressed with a number of coordinated, long-term and permanent measures.

But so far, the response has remained limited to words and promises. For instance, in January 2019, the government launched the National Clean Air Program (NCAP), a five-year action plan to curb air pollution, build a pan-India air quality monitoring network, and improve citizen awareness. It focuses on city-specific action plans for the 102 cities in India that exceed national air quality safeguards and aims to curb the PM2.5 levels by 20-30 pc compared to 2017 levels. However, two years later, the pollution levels have either fallen very marginally or even risen and so far the plan’s implementation has remained limited to setting up air quality monitoring units rather than actual measures to curb the menace.

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