New Delhi: There is a piece of good news and a speck of hope for India as per a recent analysis of air pollution in India, done by Climate Trends, a research-based consulting and capacity building initiative that aims to bring greater focus on issues of the environment, climate change and sustainable development. The levels of PM 2.5 – the smallest particles in the air – in the rural and urban regions have declined over the last few years (2017-2022). Rural regions saw PM 2.5 levels decline by 19.1 per cent, and urban regions recorded an 18.7 per cent dip in PM 2.5 levels between 2017 and 2022, according to an analysis of the 1km x 1km satellite data available from IIT Delhi.
While the dip is praiseworthy, it is important to note that air pollution knows no boundaries and it is affecting people living in both urban and rural areas.
What Is PM 2.5?
Particulate matter is one of the parameters to measure the air quality index. It is usually classified on the basis of size and accordingly, it is categorised into four groups – PM10, PM2.5, PM1 and ultra-fine particulate matter.
PM 2.5 are particles thirty times smaller than the width of a human hair. A particle size between 2.5 and 10 can dodge the body’s natural barriers, and enter the lungs and cause clogging there. Hence, it causes serious damage to lung development and causes lung diseases.
Findings Of “Status Of Urban And Rural Air Quality Exposure At Nation Scale: A Comparative Analysis”
- PM 2.5 across the rural and urban regions has plateaued over the last six years (2017-2022) and is witnessing a consistent decline.
- A reduction of 37.8 per cent and 38.1 per cent in urban and rural PM 2.5 levels, respectively, Uttar Pradesh has recorded the best progress from 2017 to 2022.
- Maharashtra was the worst performing state, with only a dip of 7.7 per cent in its urban PM 2.5 levels, while with a decrease of 8.2 per cent in its rural PM 2.5 levels, Gujarat made the least progress.
- Among all states and union territories, Chandigarh was the only union territory to report an increase in urban PM 2.5 levels up by 0.3 per cent.
- Despite progress, only 14 states brought their urban PM 2.5 levels and 12 states managed to bring rural PM 2.5 levels under the CPCB safe limits of 40 ug/m3.
- Satellite PM 2.5 data extracted for the urban-rural grid in four regions across India, showed that the Northern region is the most polluted one with the PM 2.5 levels of 74 ug/m3 in 2017 and 58 ug/m3 in 2022 in the rural region. Whereas, in urban areas, PM 2.5 levels stood at 75 ug/m3 in 2017 and 60 ug/m3 in 2022.
All Is Not Pollution Free; We Are Still Breathing Polluted Air
The data more or less correlates with what the on-ground sensors are showing. Is that a breakthrough in terms of how we measure air pollution? Aarti Khosla, Director of Climate Trends said,
I believe so. I suppose this way of measuring air quality where you’re not installing monitors on the ground, but you’re actually using what is known in technical terms as aerosol optical depth, and you’re using that as a proxy to calculate how much PM 2.5 exists in the air is a new way of extrapolating or modeling data. I believe that this is a better way because there are always limitations in how much more and how much faster we can install the continuous air quality monitoring systems.
Ms Khosla added that India still has about 700 to 800 continuous air monitoring systems against the requirement of 4,000 air quality monitoring stations across the country. She added,
In the absence of the perfect, I suppose, this is good enough. It gives you the various kinds of top lines on how plateauing is happening.
Ms Khosla warned that the “gains are not adequate”. If we have to achieve “public health”, a lot more efforts are required in both rural and urban areas, as the reduction in PM 2.5 levels was seen across the regions, she clarified and added,
Limiting action to mitigate air quality only in cities is again, going to be a piecemeal approach unless the decisions are not taken across a regional level. And I think that’s the main finding that we’ve concluded from this study.
Indian cities and villages are far from bringing air quality levels well within the WHO-prescribed standards. This is when India has the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) since 2019 with an aim to reduce particulate matter concentration in cities by 40 per cent by 2025-26. 131 cities are identified for implementing mitigation actions under NCAP.
Twelve of the 15 most polluted cities in Central and South Asia in 2022 were in India with Bhiwadi being the most polluted city in the country, followed by Delhi, according to a report by Swiss firm IQAir. India’s annual average PM2.5 level in 2022 was 53.3 μg/m3, slightly lower than the 2021 average of 58.1.
Amid this, how significant are the finding of the report by Climate Trends? Answering this, Polash Mukherjee, the lead of Air Quality and Health at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) India titled the improvement in PM 2.5 levels a “welcome surprise”. He said,
For me, this report has particularly highlighted the importance of a regional approach to air quality management. The fact that there is, not much difference between urban air quality and rural air quality. Considering the NCAP has focused just on the urban areas, points to the fact that air quality has no political boundaries. And therefore, effective actions can implement a larger region so to say.
Higher PM 2.5 levels in rural areas came as a “revelation” to Dr. Milind Kulkarni, an expert in air pollution, who has authored a book on personal exposure to air pollution. But why do rural areas have high pollution levels? One would assume that in rural areas you wouldn’t necessarily have a similar number of vehicles or industrial and population density. Dr Kulkarni said,
This calls for research. Based on the data available to me, I think, even you know, that you are living in Delhi but most of the air pollution comes from the rural areas and adjoining states like Haryana. I guess that is because of stubble burning and other activities. Also, people in rural areas use low quality fuel like compared to what is used in urban areas.
Dr Kulkarni further brought attention to different dimensions of the measurement of air quality which indicates health risks. He said,
Why are we not investing in the assessment of personal exposure to air pollution? Like, when I travel throughout the day, my exposure on the roads is different than a traffic constable’s exposure to pollution. We did research with the Harvard School of Public Health and other institutes to monitor personal exposure and I feel India should do a lot in that part.
The health impact of exposure to polluted air is evident with more and more ailments being linked to air pollution. In an earlier interview with team Banega Swasth India, earlier in December 2022, Dr Arvind Kumar, Chairman of the Institute of Chest Surgery, Chest Onco-Surgery and Lung Transplantation at the Medanta – The Medicity in Gurugram highlighted the health impact of breathing toxic air. Sharing the long-term health issues, Dr Kumar said from head to toe, no organ or cell in the body is spared from the ill effects of air pollution. He explained,
Long term effects include various cancers in children, pre-mature hypertension in children, 10-20 times higher chance of brain attack and heart attack, lung cancer, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), emphysema, various endocrine defects and now most frighteningly even obesity and diabetes are being linked to exposure to pollution. So, air pollution makes you diseased, it decreases your performance and kills you prematurely.
Further elaborating on this, Ronak Sutaria, the founder of Respirer Living Sciences Private Limited said,
Just from these kinds of model studies, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated over a million and a half deaths in India; respiratory disabilities are close to 20 to 25 million.
As per the WHO, the annual average of PM 2.5 should be 5 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) whereas, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) recommends it to be 40 µg/m3. To this, Mr Sutaria added,
We are breathing 60 micrograms of a cancerous substance the entire year-round. Any reduction in exposure to cancer does not lower your risk from cancer because you’re still exposed to the cancerous particulate matter, and I think while the reduction percentage can be appreciated, our attention on this cannot reduce because exposure to cancer is exposure to cancer.
But what led to the reduction in PM 2.5 levels? Has it to do something with the availability of cleaner fuel including for vehicles and the decline in the usage of diesel vehicles? Ms Khosla said,
I believe the overall impact is really a shift in the policy sentiment, which realises air pollution is a problem. If you look at the very complex source apportionment studies as they’re called for cities, you will see transport is a big source, but industry is also a big source. And there are sporadic and some specific seasonal sources like stubble burning which contribute a big part of the problem in a particular part of the country.
Ms Khosla believes every drop counts and suggests every measure possible to reduce pollution. She recommends,
If you make some roads where you don’t bring in the trucks into the city that has a role to play. If you make sure that the diesel gen-sets don’t run and you make stringent efforts to get the small and medium enterprises to reduce air pollution on a day-to-day basis. All of these things have a role to play, and I think that’s the combined effect of all of these things that we are seeing. Just the plateauing.
But, Ms Khosla also opines that the kind of improvement seen, which is a 20 to 25 per cent reduction over six years, is not monumental. She said,
That’s the average number that should have arrived if we are having the National Cleaner Program as the only policy instrument which tackles air pollution in the country. If we had to be happy, the improvements should have been 30 to 35 per cent. Rather than being congratulatory and very self-satisfied with the gains, it’s best to be sure that we are in the right direction of travel, but a lot more needs to be done and sources need to be acted upon in the order of where they exist. And this means, what’s the problem in Delhi perhaps is also the problem in Agra because they are in the same air shed. So the same actions should be taken to mitigate the three or four primary sources of pollution in that area.
But, the geography of the region also needs to be considered. Like, in Mumbai, the calm winds lead to high levels of pollution building up.
The question remains the same – can India achieve its goals under the NCAP? Answering it, Mr Mukherjee said,
The goals that we have set for ourselves are in terms of air quality levels, but I think we need to go one step beyond that. There is a need to monitor and set objectives for health outcomes. We need to know the number of deaths, and the number of disabilities owing to air quality at the city level. Also, there is a need to revise the national ambient air quality standards. Given that India is revising these standards after 2009, it’s very important that this revision takes into account actual empirical health outcome data that we have from the ground and also epidemiological evidence that, we are generating now in the country. So, once we start doing that, only then we’ll know what our goals essentially are.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF)status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.