A couple poses during a pre-wedding photo shoot near India’s Presidential Palace, which is shrouded in smog, New Delhi, November 5, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis
We have new rankings of cities with the worst annual average PM2.5 pollution levels in the world. In 2021, four Indian cities feature in the top 5; six in the top 10; 35 in the top 50; and 63 in the top 100. Delhi was fourth-worst overall and retained its title as the most polluted capital city in the world.
The most interesting part of the new ranking is the presence of three tier-3 cities – Bhiwadi, Jaunpur and Baghpat – which have languished thus far in the shadows of our big cities. Bhiwadi in Rajasthan is 20 km south of Gurugram; Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh is 50 km northwest of Varanasi; and Baghpat in Uttar Pradesh is around 60 km north of Delhi.
Their presence so high on the list tells us two things.
First, there has been a gradual increase in the number of air-quality monitors in tier-2 and tier-3 cities. This is an important step towards understanding the real scale of the air pollution problem across India.
As of February 2022, there were 340 continuous ambient monitoring stations in India covering 174 cities. Of these, 148 cities operated only one station, whose data could thus only be used for guidance and not representative of the city’s air, much less the basis for policymaking. But this is still a 400% improvement over September 2017 numbers, when only 74 stations were operational in 43 cities.
Second, we must shift our narratives on emissions and pollution control to include these cities – which have thus far been overlooked by the national government’s city-centric National Clean Air Programme (NCAP). Under the NCAP, for example, Jaunpur won’t take a closer look at its emissions sources and draft plans to manage them until officials evaluate Varanasi’s air quality from an airshed perspective (that is, acknowledging that the air is localised to a geographic area and not to administrative borders).
Similarly, Delhi’s effort to clean its air must cross the border and include all its neighbouring tier-2 and tier-3 cities – with or without an air quality monitor – in its clean air action plan.
Until this happens, we just can’t have clean air. And we have a long way to go.