A hazy morning in Lucknow, November 2019. Photo: PTI.
Nine of the world’s top 10 most polluted cities are in India. Seven are in the world’s largest subnational entity and the hotbed of Indian politics – Uttar Pradesh. Both these details are according to a new report by IQAir.
Another study, presented through the Air Quality Life Index report, has found that Uttar Pradesh’s air is so bad that residents of the state capital, Lucknow, could lose 10.3 years of their life expectancy on average if the pollution persists. Lucknow has the highest level of pollution in the country, fully 11-times more than WHO limits.
The IQAir report’s findings are based on concentrations of PM2.5 particles, considered to be most harmful to human health. It’s also notable that the data they analysed was from 2020, when pollution levels dropped to varying degrees around the country thanks to the COVID-19 lockdown.
Vinod Pandey, a middle-aged government official in Lucknow, said it’s hard for him to digest the findings because “I don’t really feel anything as such. The air seems the usual.”
But S.N. Tripathi, a professor at IIT Kanpur and member of the steering committee, National Clean Air Programme, called the city’s air “absolutely bad”.
And for the world’s first female amputee mountaineer, Arunima Sinha, the statistic is appalling. “Who better than me can understand the importance of clean air? I almost died from lack of oxygen while climbing Mount Everest,” she said.” And when I get to know how bad the air quality is in my native state and the city where I live, I feel deeply disturbed.
Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director of research and advocacy at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), New Delhi, wasn’t surprised, however.
“Uttar Pradesh is vulnerable to elevated pollution levels because it lies in the land-locked Indo-Gangetic plain,” she said.
“There’s a general lack of awareness and apathy about the implications of poor air quality among the public and policymakers,” Dr Surya Kant, the national president of the Indian Chest Society and head of the department of respiratory medicine at King George Medical University, Lucknow, said.
“Is it not sad to see people finding the mask to be a ‘necessary evil’? Apart from protecting from the virus, a mask also protects from the harmful health effects of air pollution. The case is not so with the helmet or the seat belt because there’s a law around it.”
Obstetrician, gynaecologist and former director-general (medical and health) of the state Dr Vijaylaxmi said Uttar Pradesh’s air quality isn’t improving despite some government efforts because the issue isn’t yet a “political priority”.
CSE’s Chowdhury also said, “Political support is critical to build scale and speed of solutions.” However, “to ensure sustained improvement, the entire region requires time-bound implementation of stringent multi-sector clean air action plans with a strong compliance and monitoring strategy at a scale and speed.”
Ashish Tiwari, member secretary of the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB), refused to comment. However, the regional officer of UPPCB for Lucknow Ram Karan went on the defensive when asked about the new reports, and insisted that “the air quality improved by 20-30% last year” and that the government is making all efforts to improve Lucknow’s air.
Tripathi, of IIT Kanpur, has been conducting a Lucknow-centric real-time source apportionment study of air pollution. He couldn’t share data because the study was ongoing but said the numbers suggest that inefficient combustion is a major source of the problem.
He also said there will have to be more studies like his before scientists can be sure – following which “scientific evidence-based policymaking” would be “the need of the hour”.
“We need more studies, more data, and more monitoring to improve things because air pollution has a direct bearing on human health,” he added.
To this end, Tripathi said he had high hopes from the National Knowledge Network, an alliance of experts in support of the National Clean Air Programme.
Taken together, Uttar Pradesh can breathe easier if there is more scientific clarity on and political weight attached to the issue. Does this weight exist?
Ahead of the state polls in February 2022, many of the bigger parties in the fray seem to think so.
Azad Arimardan, the Bahujan Samaj Party legislator from Azamgarh who recently raised the issue in the state assembly, said the state “has some of the most polluted cities in the world and it’s a matter of grave political concern.”
Samajwadi Party spokesperson Rajendra Chaudhary said the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) “government should be ashamed of [IQAir’s] findings” and that it had “defamed the state globally”. Party chief Akhilesh Yadav studied as an environmental engineer, and Chaudhary added, “Environment and better air quality will certainly be an issue this time in the upcoming elections.”
“Better air quality, apart from conservation of environment and climate change mitigation, is something that should be of immediate priority for political parties,” Rashtriya Lok Dal party national spokesperson Anupam Mishra said. “Because if not now, then when? For us, it is very much a political issue.”
The Indian National Congress struck a similar note, with spokesperson Akhilesh Pratap Singh asking: “Is it not a matter of shame for the Uttar Pradesh government to see ten cities from the state figuring in the world’s top 20 most polluted cities?”
The ruling BJP had some reservations about the report, however. Spokesperson Naveen Srivastava said, “We first need to know the authenticity and validity of this report and the claim it has made regarding these cities.” But he also added that “clean air and safe drinking water are not just a political priority for us, they are in fact our commitment to the people of this state.”
Nishant Saxena is a Lucknow-based science communications professional and a journalist with over 15 years of experience.