Air pollution is most spoken of in the NCR, but it is really a country-wide problem. And despite the Green Tribunal and Supreme Court stepping in hard, a national health emergency already exists

Anumita Roychowdhury

Anumita Roychowdhury

The author is Executive Director at CSE and head of the air pollution and clean transportation programme, and campaigns for clean air and public health

One summer afternoon, I got this disturbing phone call from a resident of Pitampura in Delhi, (name withheld). He was undergoing cancer treatment in Rajeev Gandhi Cancer Hospital. After completing a round of treatment, his doctors have advised him to reduce body burden of toxic exposure. He asked, “Where can I live to breathe safe air? Is Rohtak, where I can move, cleaner than Delhi?” He did not know enough but despite his ill health, persuaded the state pollution control board to share air quality data of Rohtak to get an “informed opinion”. This anguished and traumatic query was so disturbing, but this is not an isolated case.

Those suffering from respiratory and cardiac ailments or asthma are desperate to escape the choking haze of pollution. But there is rarely an escape route. It is not just Delhi but large numbers of cities have turned into gas chambers making air pollution a national health crisis.

Recently, on the occasion of the World Asthma Day, a group of medical doctors from Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, a reputed hospital in Delhi, interacted with a large gathering of parents and children in the capital to talk about the insidious link between air pollution and respiratory health. The worst affected are children, who have a respiration rate higher than adults and are more susceptible to air pollution. They said, this scourge cannot be contained only with medication and management. We need clean air. Several studies by well known hospitals in Delhi and other cities have thrown up clinching evidences. Close to 50 studies are known in India that confirms the dangerous risk from polluted air already known from global studies.

New estimates of the global burden of disease (GBD) paint a grim picture for India. Globally, air pollution is estimated to cause more than 4.2 million early deaths of these, 1.1 million deaths occur in India alone. This is more than a quarter of the global deaths. India nearly equals China which scores the highest number of early deaths due to PM2.5. India also tops the dubious list of highest number of early deaths due to ozone pollution. More studies have found other damaging impacts of toxic air not only on the respiratory and cardiac systems, but also on brain, foetus, stroke, hypertension, diabetes and cancer. Risk for us could even be worse given the very high level of pollution, urban poverty and malnutrition. If this does not wake us up what will?

Therefore, political denial of the problem cannot continue or argue for more and more local evidences to justify stronger action. This amounts to asking our own children, elderly and vulnerable to act as the guinea pigs. With so many people dying early and falling ill and losing productive years, it is already a state of health emergency. The extensive study of Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and Chittaranjan National Cancer Research Institute shows every third child in Delhi has impaired lungs; there are signs of pulmonary hemorrhage in large number of children. There are scary photo evidences of changes in lungs that have taken place among children of Delhi.

Air pollution not only harms lungs but also hurts the growth story of India. Already the World Bank study of 2013 has estimated more than 3 per cent GDP loss due to health cost associated with particulate pollution. But cost of particulate control will be a lot less than 1 per cent of GDP and give USD 100 billion worth of health benefits.

National crisis

If Indian cities are ranked based on their air pollution levels then smaller cities show up as more polluted than the mega cities. The ambient air quality data from CPCB shows nearly half of all cities monitored have particulate levels that are officially classified as critical. Smaller cities are in the dubious list that includes Kanpur, Allahabad, and Ludhiana, among others. There is also multi-pollutant crisis as several pollutants – both tiny particulates and gases, increase together. The daily risk is evident from the daily Air Quality Index that CPCB releases for 32 cities. While there is so much hype around Delhi smog there is total silence on pollution risk across urban India.

Cities of northern India are more vulnerable as in landlocked north India overall pollution from open fires, traffic, biomass chulhas, power plants and industry stays elevated and trapped. This is especially worsened by calm and cool winter. Episodic pollution from farm fires and firecrackers add to the crisis. Every winter residents of the national capital region (NCR) and several north Indian cities wake up to see a post-apocalyptic world. A thick blanket of smog engulfs. Clinics and hospitals start getting deluged with patients complaining of respiratory and cardiac problems.

The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change needs to implement a nation-wide strategy to control both particulate and gaseous pollutants from key pollution sources to meet clean air standards.

There are many polluters in our cities and all are part of the big problem. But each polluter fights hard to be let off the hook claiming to be a small share of the pollution pie. Reductionist number games follow as in the case of an automobile. In Delhi after the study by the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur (IIT Kanpur) showed that among 13 pollution sources in the pollution pie vehicles are the second highest emitters of particulates at 20 per cent, but industry trashed it.

They crunched these numbers to claim that pollution from cars is inconsequential as they are only 3 per cent of the total problem. But the same IIT Kanpur study also shows that the respective share of waste burning, and construction activities, the other key sources of pollution, is also 2 to 3 per cent. But this does not mean they don’t matter but hints at their relative position in an alarmingly big pollution pie of the city. This requires not less but more stringent action on all pollution sources including cars in a city that has to cut pollution by as much as 74 per cent from current levels to meet the clean air standards.

Such motivated claims are countered with more matured science that highlights the special risk from vehicles that emit close to us and cause much more harm. The effect of vehicular pollution is maximum up to 500 meters from roadside making close to 60 per cent of the urban population vulnerable.

This science of direct exposure from pollution sources close to us has been firmly captured and confirmed by the 2015 report of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. It said from health standpoint what matters most is how close we are to a pollution source. Control pollution where people are. More global studies have also proven that while all particulates are harmful some are more harmful than others. Particles from diesel and coal combustion are more harmful than windblown dust and require priority attention. The WHO has nailed diesel emissions as a class I carcinogen for its strong link with lung cancer like the tobacco smoking.

This science has propelled air pollution action. In Delhi for instance, as the judiciary stepped in to uphold Right to Life, the entire diesel-based public transport has moved to compressed natural gas with significant public health benefits. Thereafter, concerned by rapid dieselisation of car segment and misuse of low-tax diesel by rich car owners that are meant for farmers and freight, Supreme Court initially banned big diesel cars and SUVs in the region but subsequently imposed one per cent environment pollution charge to make people conscious of the pollution potential of these vehicles. But as the estimate carried out by the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority, has shown the environment pollution charge should be at least 20 per cent of the cost of the car to be able to recover the extra tax that the petrol car owners pay for fuel during the lifetime of usage.

Meanwhile, the National Green Tribunal has asked for the removal of old diesel cars from the Delhi NCR. These series of measures on diesel cars mirror the global concern over the toxic effect of diesel emissions. Globally, even after meeting the state of the art emissions standards, diesel cars are emitting 6 to 12 times higher than their certification level nullifying improvement in emissions standards.

While Beijing and Brazil do not allow diesel cars, London and Paris plan to ban them soon. European and Chinese cities label their older cars yellow to deny them entry into city centers. But only localised action cannot give the full solution as polluting vehicles will pollute elsewhere. However, the heat on diesel has catalysed the significant step to leapfrog directly from the current Bharat Stage IV emissions standards to Bharat Stage VI and skip stage V altogether too narrow down the gap between petrol and diesel emissions. While national urban air quality planning remains weak, bottom-up pressure in Delhi and NCR is catalysing more integrated action. After introducing CNG vehicles, shifting polluting industries out, improving emissions standards, Delhi could arrest air pollution but has lost all the gains.

However, the deadliest Diwali smog of 2016 and Supreme Court interventions have once again helped to step up action. This region has just got the first ever notification on graded response action plan for emergency action based on daily air quality levels. A comprehensive action plan for all air pollution sources is in the making. Responding strongly to the rampant use of dirty industrial fuels like pet coke and furnace oil with extremely high sulphur content of 23,000 ppm to 74,000 ppm (as opposed to only 50 ppm sulphur in transport fuel), the Supreme Court has directed CPCB to set gaseous emissions standards for 35 industry categories by June and industry in Delhi NCR to comply with by December this year. By 2018 Delhi’s last coal-based power plant in Badarpur will also be shut. Already each and every truck entering Delhi has to pay environment compensation charge that has reduced truck numbers. Post-Diwali smog this winter Delhi has experienced lower pollution compared to previous winter.

Seasonal Ambush

Fighting local pollution is not easy when pollution levels in the region remain elevated. Pollution in Delhi-NCR spikes seasonally when farmers of Punjab and Haryana change crop and put agricultural stubble on fire. Interestingly, during the second odd and even license plate scheme in April 2016, the pollution level after an initial reduction suddenly spiked when farm fires started raging. Pollution control has to step up across the region.

The stunning NASA satellite pictures this year show farm fires have now become a nation-wide problem. Mechanisation of harvesting leaves behind stubble, labour cost is too high to clear them, the traditional use of waste straw has reduced, short time cycle between two crops discourage farmers from finding alternative forms of disposal, and paddy straw has little alternative uses. Thus, burning of crop residues is the easiest way out that contaminates the entire air shed.

This only makes the case for strong national air quality planning framework to help all cities to meet the national ambient air quality standards. Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change needs to set a clear mechanism for setting time bound clean air targets for cities and enable pollution source-wise action plan with a compliance strategy to meet the standards.

The recent initiative of the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to get air pollution-related health criteria mainstreamed into all policies and programmes across sectors to reduce health exposures is a critical step forward.

Strong and effective action can bring change. Air quality trends in several cities including Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Ahmedabad among others have shown in the past that whenever these cities have bent the pollution curve they have saved premature deaths and illness. This gives confidence that this can happen again and can be sustained with hard decisions and public support.



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