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10 Reasons Why Indian Cities Continue To Top the World’s ‘Most Polluted’ Lists

10 Reasons Why Indian Cities Continue To Top the World’s ‘Most Polluted’ Lists

Kashmiri women carry baskets on their heads as they walk along a road on a hazy morning in Srinagar, November 30, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail.

Delhi has once again topped the chart of the world’s capital cities with the worst PM2.5 annual average levels in 2020. Another 34 Indian cities are in the top 50, according to the report by IQAir. That this is after months of lockdown and restricted industrial activity across the country that led to some decrease in the overall averages compared to 2019 makes the figures that much more concerning.

If there was one lesson from the lockdowns across the world, that is this: anything burnt will contribute to air pollution and any amount of emissions cut at the source will significantly, and in some cases immediately, reduce air pollution. But despite seeing the benefits of not burning fossil fuels and waste, here are 10 reasons why we are still stuck with the problem, with no or limited direction.

1. Lack of national legislation

In March 2020, this author wrote for The Wire Science:

A reduction in budget and shifting limited accountability of a key agencies signals to other government bodies that the air quality is not a priority. The Central Pollution Control Board already lacks teeth; the new budgetary priorities will completely defang it, leaving it a mere hoarder of data and action plans.

A year later, with no Environmental Pollution Prevention and Control Authority (EPCA) and a disbanded Commission on Air Quality Management (CAQM) that was supposed to replace it, we are all but stranded. There is no one to lead the charge and no overarching entity that has assumed responsibility to evaluate the situation and draft a plan.

2. Analysis paralysis

The National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) was launched in 2019 with a focus on 122 non-attainment cities to achieve 20-30% reduction in 2024’s annual average PM2.5 pollution levels compared to 2017 levels. Two years later, most of NCAP’s work is focused on analysing air pollution to support Delhi city’s clean-air action plans and some capacity-building to strengthen monitoring activities.

At some point, we have to understand that air quality is not becoming better by increasing the number of monitors in the city and policy is not changing because the contribution of vehicle exhaust to the overall pollution changes from 30% in an older study to 25% in a new study (or vice versa). We still have to address all these sectors in every city:

a. Clean fuel for transport, industry, and cooking

b. Promotion of public transport, walking and cycling

c. Waste reduction, pickup and management

d. Enforcement of standards for industries

e. Greening, and

f. Dust management

The truth, and the problem, are that we don’t precisely know where the sweet-spot is between how much information is enough to act and when we start to act based on what we already know. Knowing more about the problem is important and gathering more information will help us understand the problem better, but we should not be waiting for a prefect pie.

3. Blame games

We have a pollution control board in every state that is responsible for monitoring and auditing the problem, including, when required, assessment of emission sources. After that the blame games begin – often in the form of faults in studies leading to either more studies or just more dialogue.

In the case of Delhi, the conversation on air pollution begins with Diwali and ends with the post-harvest crop-residue burning in Punjab and Haryana in October-November. With most of the policy and public dialogue concentrated in this period, the public and political perception is often that crop-residue burning is the sole cause of Delhi’s bad air quality every year and that there is nothing we can do in the city that can help clean it. This is in spite of the fact that there are approximately 20 million inhabitants, 11 million registered vehicles, 20,000 km of dusty roads, 10,000 small-scale industrial units, plus waste generation, open-burning and construction activities. All these activities motor along for 365 days while Diwali is at best a week long and crop-residue burning lasts for two or three weeks over two months.

With more studies underway to ascertain source contributions in all the NCAP cities, and with no accounting agency in place, the situation is quite conducive for more blame games, to avoid any local or communal responsibility. The NCAP needs to rapidly change its approach from city-centric plans to regional plans, or at least an airshed-level plan that goes beyond the city’s administrative limits and cover all possible sources that influence air quality through the year.

4. Need to look for innovation

Once we reach a certain standard, the room for innovation becomes static. Take buses, for example. India now follows the best available Bharat-VI fuel and vehicle standards that cut down most exhaust emissions by up to 95%, compared to the older standards. However, today, most conversations to promote public transportation are centred around electric vehicles (EVs). EVs need additional infrastructure to charge, manufacturing of new technology, buses and batteries, and maintenance training – all of which adds to the waiting game.

On a per capita basis, a bus is more fuel-efficient than a three- or four-passenger car. So the solution is as simple as procuring the best-available technology buses and promoting the idea of using them. In 1997, a white paper on Delhi’s air pollution projected the need for 15,000 buses in 2000 – and in 2020 a new action plan still talks about the need for 15,000 buses. Every time the fleet changes, it is because of the need to replace the old fleet but rarely in the name of expanding the fleet. The push to innovate and find new solutions is nothing but a delay tactic.

The Auto Fuel Policy 2025 proposed to introduce Bharat-VI vehicle and fuel technology in 2025. However, technological evolution ensured that we could have introduced these solutions in 2020 itself. But no one forced the change and no new infrastructure was built to adapt the technology. Today, Indian cities have access to the best available standards, and this should be the norm for changing or adding the fleet. Organically, when new technology emerges and is ready to be integrated into the system, it will happen.

5. Lack of behavioural change programs

Continuing with the public-transport topic – a broader issue that requires attention is the change in passenger behaviour. Let’s face it, just because a bus is not running on diesel is not going to change one’s attitude towards public transport. The transition requires the programme to include safety, punctuality and comfort to shift from personal transport to mass transport. Similar adjustments are required to promote walking and cycling, in addition to building the infrastructure, as these two are zero-emission modes with immediate benefits to the community.

6. False assurances

On paper, every activity across India is a clean one because all of them carry certificates that say so.

In the transport sector, every vehicle has a “pollution under check” certificate that is updated every 3-6 months and gives the owner the ability so say that the vehicle is clean. But while every vehicle is clean, cumulatively the pool is large enough to tilt the pollution load of a city from moderate and poor to very poor. The false assurance stems from the fact that the test itself does not measure the pollutants we are worried about the most (PM2.5 and NOx), and the whole process is an idle test that does not represent real-world driving conditions.

The situation is the same in the industrial sector. Every entity carries a clean chit via the environmental impact assessment process, which evaluates only incremental changes in pollution levels and doesn’t consider the cumulative impact of existing plants. With no information from industries on real-time emissions, the only assurance available of a clean process is the certificate. The overall scope of the evaluation is also limited to a small area around the plant and does not include the impact of additional pollution on health.

7. Ignoring health impacts

Consider India’s new plastics ban amendment, for example. The main reason for this ban is that plastics are not good for humans’, oceans’ and animals’ health – not when they are just thrown on the streets or burnt indiscriminately, which contributes to air pollution. There is a lot of scepticism over the health impact estimates, especially vis-à-vis premature mortality, life years lost and other acute effects like asthma. But there is no denying that chronic exposure to air pollution shortens our life and everything we burn contributes to this problem: coal, diesel, petrol, gas, wood, cow dung, plastics, waste, crackers, crop-residue. Studies conducted by the WHO and Indian institutions have documented this many times and still we ignore the gravity of the problem.

In December 2020, based on a coroner’s statement, a UK court ruled the death of a young woman as being due to “exposure to excessive air pollution”. This was a landmark judgment that will have implications on how air pollution will be addressed in the UK and other countries. The one indisputable fact is that the longer we ignore health impacts and wait to act against air pollution, the more we will destroy lives and life years.

8. Missing basic information

The most basic data in the fight against air pollution is monitoring data. India operates 278 ambient continuous-monitoring stations to assess outdoor air pollution experienced by 1.3 billion inhabitants. This is ridiculous. The number of monitors should be closer to 4,000, if not higher, to be able to reasonably evaluate trends in space and through time. And with only 278 monitors, the existing data has too many gaps to be useful.

The issue exists on the emissions side: very few heavy industrial units measure their stack emission rates in real-time and fewer post them for public consumption. In the absence of good and open data, it is very easy to deny the existence of the problem or delay execution of good policies saying that we don’t know enough or when to act.

9. Relying on the courts

Time and again, India’s judicial system has played a central role in air pollution-related decisions, resulting in some policy changes or leading to public awareness. For example:

a. In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled to convert public transport buses and para-transit vehicles to run on compressed natural gas. This successful conversion programme remains an iconic intervention and which all cities are still trying to replicate.

b. In 2015, three toddlers filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court of India for a full ban on the sale of fireworks during Diwali. The court lifted the ban with the caveat that it would be reinstated if evidence comes to light that fireworks are found to be major pollutants during the festive season.

c. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the introduction of BS-VI standard vehicles nationwide, starting April 1, 2020, instead of the original plan for 2025 under the Auto Fuel Policy.

d. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of an immediate ban on the use of pet coke (which has high sulphur content) in all industrial units in the National Capital Region of Delhi.

All these decisions should have come from the pollution control boards because burning fuels and crackers is injurious to health. Going forward, actions must come before judicial interventions become necessary, and the concerned authorities must implement them in all sectors without delay.

10. Focus on immediate returns

Instant gratification is a barrier to change. The new tool in this space is the “smog tower” – nothing but a big vacuum cleaner to suck air in and filter dust in the middle of the road. On paper, it shows action on the ground and creates enough noise for awareness. But the reality is the opposite: no change in air quality. Experts have found (here, here and here) that these solutions only provide a false sense of achievement in the near-term and no benefits in the long-term.

Sarath Guttikunda is the director of Urban Emissions (India), an independent research group on air pollution, issuing three-day air quality forecasts for all Indian districts.

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