Air pollution needs smart responses, not gimmicks

Polluted air cuts 9 years from life expectancy of 40 pc Indians, says study

Politics

September 3, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Air pollution needs smart responses, not gimmicks

A study published by Energy Policy Institute of the University of Chicago says that close to 550 million people, could see their life expectancy drop by as many as 9 years due to air pollution levels (MIG photos/Aman Kanojiya)

Days after Delhi chief minister inaugurated a smog tower as his government’s answer to air pollution that has already reached critical levels, yet another study shows that air pollution could shave off as many as nine years from the life expectancy of as many as 40 pc of India’s populations. Indian government and business need to get serious about tackling air pollution immediately rather than gimmicks like smog towers and the like.

On September 1, the Energy Policy Institute of the University of Chicago published a study saying that up to 40 pc of Indians, or close to 550 million people, could see their life expectancy drop by as many as nine years due to air pollution levels.

The study said that large parts of northern, central and eastern India have to face significantly high levels of pollution for a sustained period of time during the year. The report also cautioned that it was alarming to note that India’s high levels of air pollution have expanded geographically over time and highlighted worsening pollution levels in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.

The report did have a positive tinge to it, but it was a highly conditional positivity. The researchers at the Chicago University said that if India managed to achieve the targets set in the National Clean Air Programme then it could hope to reverse some of the damage caused to the health of its population. The report said if the targets were achieved and sustained, then life expectancy could rise by 1.7 years nationwide and 3.1 years in New Delhi.

Under the NCAP, the government is committed to cut pollution in 102 most polluted cities across India by up to 30 pc in the next three years, by cutting industrial emissions and vehicular exhaust, introducing stringent rules for transport fuels and biomass burning and reduce dust pollution. It also envisages improved monitoring of pollution.

Just days before this report was published, on August 23, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal inaugurated a fancy smog tower in the central business district of Connaught Place on a pilot basis to clean air. The tower, standing 24 m tall, aims to clean about 1000 cubic metres of air per second. Opening the tower, Kejriwal said that the efficiency of the project would be evaluated by expert teams from the IITs in Mumbai and New Delhi at the end of two years and then more such towers could be installed.

Though the tower may be good enough to clean the air in the near vicinity, environmentalists say it is a showpiece but not much more. “These smog towers are definitely not going to work. It is a futile exercise to first let the pollution rise, then trying to reduce it through smog towers. It would be more useful if they installed pollution control devices and used better technologies to cut the emissions at source in the first place. Because once pollution is in the atmosphere, it is difficult to do anything. Since air moves constantly, even if you clean a specific area, it will get polluted again,” Vivek Chattopadhyaya, senior programme manager (Clean air and Sustainable Mobility) at Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), tells Media India Group.

Chattopadhyaya adds that the focus of all efforts has to be in pollution control at the source itself rather than installing a smog tower, putting up air purifiers at home. “The solution has to be for the public interest at a large scale. Something that benefits everyone,” he adds.

Pollution sources no mystery

The government has long known the key sources of pollution in the capital as well as all over the country. Automobile emissions are one of the biggest contributors, and along with industry and construction, they account for an overwhelming proportion of the total air pollution.

For instance, in Delhi and neighbouring areas, vehicular pollution contributes more than one-third of the pollution in the capital. All over India, the figures don’t vary much. The government has initiated some actions to curb automotive emissions such as pushing electric vehicles as well as tightening emission norms with the introduction of BS-VI, jumping from current BS-IV. Analysts welcome the move as a bold one, but say this is contradicted by laxity in other areas.

“The government has taken a tough decision to introduce BS-VI norms that match those prevailing in Europe and other countries right now. It was a bold decision to move directly from BS-IV to BS-VI. But other sectors like power plants and construction have a diluted road map. They are allowing the norms to be implemented over a longer period of time. That does not help in reducing air pollution significantly. Also, a huge effort has to be made to curb emissions from other sources which are widespread across the country such as small scale and medium size industrial units and also burning of garbage. These are present perhaps everywhere,” says Chattopadhyaya.

“Also, areas with higher pollution levels should have tighter norms than others. I think if we adopt this strategy and national clean air programme gets further strengthened, not just looking at cities, right now we are looking at say 122 cities, but there are more than 5,000 cities and towns in India, and if we don’t control air pollution in all the cities, then the NCAP cannot be successful. So, the scope of the action has to be expanded and the scale has to expand along with the stringency,” he adds.

Even in adoption of electric vehicles, the movement is rather slow. For instance, the Delhi government has set a target of EVs to number about 25 pc of all vehicles in the city-state by 2024. But with three years to go, EVs make for only 1.3 pc of all vehicles. Nationwide figures are perhaps worse. The government has not yet finalised a cut-off date or even strategy to push the automobile industry from internal combustion engines to EVs. Though some ideas were floated by NITI Aayog, the rebranded planning commission, but they were far too ambitious and were junked by union minister Nitin Gadkari as well as the industry.

Pollution hurting future generations as well as economy

The higher levels of air pollution present in India impacts the children and younger population more. A recent survey showed that the prevalence of asthma and allergic symptoms was higher among children in Delhi when compared to kids in Kottayam and Mysuru, where the air pollution levels are considerably lower.

Conducted by the Lung Care Foundation and Pulmocare Research and Education Foundation, the study involved over 3000 children in the age groups of 13-14 and 16-17 years. The researchers say that lung function approaches its peak around these ages, and hence the study focused on these children and who had been living in the same city for the past 10 years, to gauge longer term impact of air pollution on human health.

In Delhi, 52.8 pc of the children reported sneezing, while the figure stood at 39.3 pc for Kottayam and Mysuru. While 38.4 pc of children in Delhi reported cough, the corresponding figure for Kottayam and Mysuru was 18.9 pc. A total of 31.5 pc of children in Delhi reported shortness of breath, while only 10.8 pc in Kottayam and Mysuru experienced it.

Poor health and lower life expectancy have a severe economic bearing as well. As India’s population is overwhelmingly young, the country could end up paying a much higher price if it continues to neglect air pollution, say analysts. “A World Bank report says that there is a significant cost attached to pollution, notably healthcare costs as well as losses in productivity. In all, air pollution is believed to cost about 3 pc of the GDP. At the same time, mitigation or controlling air pollution would cost only around 1 pc of the GDP. So, mitigation is not only better but also cheaper. So, I think we need to push for urgent action on air pollution because that will improve the economy as well as the health of the people,” says CSE’s Chattopadhaya.

There is enough research and evidence in front of leaders like Kejriwal that mitigation at the root – by cutting emissions and enhancing energy efficiency of all devices as well as adopting greener lifestyle — is the only way to curb air pollution. Smog towers can only serve to fog their own minds about the priorities that need to be accorded to curb this all-pervasive menace.

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