Smoke rises from a chimney of a garbage processing plant on the outskirts of Chandigarh, December 2011. Photo: Reuters/Ajay Verma
- Three years of improvements in air quality levels stood reversed as Delhi topped the list of most polluted capital cities on the planet for the fourth year.
- A new report report has shown us, yet again, that air pollution is a national emergency, and that we must reject the discourse centred solely around Delhi.
- We must eschew the techno-fixes currently dominating discourse and recognise the long-term transitions necessary to sustainably improve air quality.
Three years of improvements in air quality levels, facilitated in part by COVID-induced lockdowns, stood reversed as Delhi topped the list of most polluted capital cities on the planet for the fourth year. India also figured near the top on the list of countries with highest annual average exposure, according to the analysis by IQAir, a Swiss air-quality assessment group.
Using data generated in large part by environmental regulators, the group’s report laid out a stark picture of the scale of exposure to air pollution around the country, with almost no city meeting the WHO’s limits. With COVID-19 restrictions easing considerably and economic activity nearing pre-COVID levels once more, we can expect 2022 to be worse than 2021.
The report also showed us, yet again, that air pollution is a national emergency, and that we must reject the discourse centred solely around Delhi. Large tracts of the Indo-Gangetic plain, stretching from Punjab in the west to West Bengal in the east, have exposure levels as bad as, if not worse than, that of Delhi. This is clear from the list of the 15 most polluted cities in the region, which features 12 large and small primarily industrial towns from Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Other cities like Kolkata and Mumbai have also seen sharp increases in exposure, where the proximity to the sea may have alleviated an otherwise more serious problem.
The impact of this high exposure to air pollution in the long- and short-term has been well documented, with air pollution contributing to over 1.6 million deaths in India in 2019, according to sub-national burden of disease estimates by the Indian Council of Medical Research, the Public Health Foundation of India and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Several other studies have also linked exposure with mortality, heightened risk of hypertension, premature birth, low birth-weight and a range of other adverse health outcomes. The catastrophic health and economic losses, estimated to be 1.36% of GDP in 2019, present a very real and growing challenge, one that can only be confronted through systematic, science-driven and sustained action.
The last couple of years have seen increased attention and budgetary allocations to air pollution, particularly through the 15th finance commission grants to urban local bodies. The large sums of money now finding their way to these bodies in 130+ cities around the country indicate a promising start to address air pollution in cities. At the same time, the cookie-cutter action plans submitted by local and state governments, and the almost singular focus on utilising the finance commission funds to expand monitoring, show that there is a very urgent need for structural reforms and capacity building at all levels.
The first of these reforms is the need to move beyond the city-centric view of air pollution, instead adopting an airshed approach to managing air quality. Such an approach accommodates the fact that air pollution does not recognise administrative boundaries and disperses across an area that shares climatic and geographical characteristics. The largest such airshed in India is the Indo-Gangetic plain, where air pollution generated in Punjab has been tracked all the way over West Bengal.
Regulating air quality in such an airshed requires an integrated approach that accounts for urban and rural sources, favours coordinated action across jurisdictions, aided by an agency that has the authority to direct action.
An example of such a mechanism already in place is the Commission on Air Quality Management in the NCR and adjoining areas (CAQM). While the CAQM Act gives the body wide-ranging powers, we are yet to truly see it in action in this regard. An airshed approach is even more salient in light of the significant funds allocated to urban local bodies, which neither have the technical expertise nor the convening authority to manage air pollution beyond their limited jurisdictions.
Overhauling regulatory frameworks must also be coupled with strengthening the regulators themselves. Chronically understaffed and lacking the requisite technical capacity in-house, State Pollution Control Boards are ill-equipped to manage such a sizable challenge, focusing their work instead on managing permits and loosely enforcing industrial emissions standards.
The advent of novel instrumentation and satellite technologies to measure pollution levels and the use of data analytics techniques by regulators around the world only serve to remind us of how far we still have to go in addressing our own capacity constraints.
Concurrently, we must eschew the techno-fixes currently dominating discourse and recognise the long-term transitions necessary to sustainably improve air quality. Whether it is the installation of hugely expensive and ineffectual smog towers or the allocation of thousands of crores of taxpayer funds to distribute ‘happy seeders’ to farmers, the emphasis on immediate, in situ, post facto solutions are a harmful distraction.
Take the case of stubble burning, where our current predicament is second or third order effects of policies implemented over several decades. Realistic reductions in stubble burning can only come through transitions in cropping patterns across Punjab and Haryana. Such a large-scale, long-term transition away from decades of established practice can only happen when economic, environmental, agricultural and nutritional policies converge to provide the right set of incentives to farmers.
Meaningfully reducing air pollution in India is a decadal challenge that will require political will combined with professional and technical skills. Starting from a much higher baseline load than other countries that have faced this issue, India’s task is an unenviable one. The advantage, however, is that half a century of global action on air pollution has taught us what works and what doesn’t. Going forward, our guiding principles must be:
- Set clear and long-term goals with interim markers of success;
- Reduce emissions at source, from all sources within and outside the household;
- Foreground the science and embrace interdisciplinary frameworks for action;
- Embrace new tools and techniques, and equip our regulators to apply them; and
- Place equity and social justice at the heart of decision-making.
Recent initiatives, such as the almost total withdrawal of finances for the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, which provides subsidised LPG to rural households, breaches each of these principles and pushes these households back towards traditional and more polluting fuels such as wood and dung.
We are at a crossroads on our path to clean air, and the decisions we take now will influence the air that current and future generations breathe. At this juncture, embracing the aforementioned principles will align us with the path of sustainable development we have committed to nationally and globally. Disregarding them will ensure that piecemeal interventions continue to be the norm, coming at the expense of the health and well-being of India’s young populace and its economy.
Bhargav Krishna is a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and co-founder of Care for Air. The views expressed here are personal.