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Year 2019: How Bad Is The Air We Are Breathing And What Will It Take For India To Curb Air Pollution?

Air pollution, in the recent years, has become India’s most prominent problem and the number one health concern and while the governments across the country are trying to mitigate the poor air quality with Delhi deploying maximum measures in past 10 years, people are still gasping for air

Year 2019: How Bad Is The Air We Are Breathing And What Will It Take For India To Curb Air Pollution?

New Delhi: According to the State of Global Air Report of 2019, air pollution is the third leading risk factor for mortality, accounting for more than 12 Lakh deaths in India in 2017 alone. It is a risk factor for many of the leading causes of death including heart disease, stroke, lower respiratory infections, lung cancer, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In consideration of the high risks posed by the depleted air quality, Indian Medical Association (IMA) declared a medical emergency in Delhi and other cities with high pollution multiple times during the past years. Over the past decade, India became home to 15 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world. As the year 2019 ends, thus marking the end of the current decade, here is a look back at the last 10 years on what has worked and what has not worked when it comes to tackling air pollution.

Also Read: Air Pollution May Result In Increased Risk Of Heart Disease And Stroke, Says A New Study

Air Pollution Scenario In India In The Past Decade

According to Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), Delhi based research and advocacy group, the four major sources of pollution that have remained constant through the past decade are transport- trucks, diesel vehicles, large number of two vehicles and cars causing maximum amount of pollution followed by industries including thermal power plants as these use poor quality fuel like petcoke, then there is construction dust suspended in the air and other sources like stubble burning, garbage burning, and bio-fuel burning for cooking in rural areas and urban slums. According to Anumita Roychowdhury, air pollution expert at CSE,

Various studies clearly show that causes of pollution, especially in Northern India cannot be attributed to the farmers alone for burning farm biomass. Major share of the pollution is contributed by vehicular and industrial emissions.

The entire population of India, as per State of Global Air 2019, resides in areas with PM2.5 (particulate matter with a diameter less than 2.5 microns) concentration higher than the limit of 10 μg/m3 (annual average) recommended under Air Quality Guidelines of the World Health Organisation (WHO). More than half of the population resides in areas where the Indian National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for PM2.5 (40 μg/m3 ) is exceeded. NAAQSs are the standards for ambient air quality set by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in 1994 and are applicable nationwide. The permissible limit for PM 2.5 under NAAQS is four times the WHO standard.

Year 2019: How Bad Is The Air We Are Breathing And What Will It Take For India To Curb Air Pollution?

All India average annual PM 2.5 exposure vs the national PM 2.5 threshold

In the past decade, various studies suggested that exposure to outdoor pollution accounted for a loss of nearly one and a half year in life expectancy, and the exposure to indoor pollution accounted for a loss of nearly a year and two months in life span. There were 12.41 lakh deaths due to exposure to air pollution in 2017, an increase of about 1.09 Lakh from 2010.

Year 2019: How Bad Is The Air We Are Breathing And What Will It Take For India To Curb Air Pollution?

Number of deaths attributed to air pollution between 2010-2017

Also Read: Demonstrating The Impact Of Air Pollution On Health, Lungs Installed In Lucknow Turn Jet-Black In Five Days

Polash Mukherjee, Air Pollution Expert in National Research Development Corporation (NRDC), highlighted that during the whole decade, winter months faced worse air pollution every year. He said that this is because there is no wind to disperse the pollutants and the increased moisture increases the capacity of the air to hold pollutants. He also pointed out that during the onset of winters, between October 15 and November 15, farmers in the states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh burn stubble post-harvesting of rice. This aggravates the deterioration of the air quality in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR). Talking about the reasons for stubble burning, Mr. Mukherjee said,

Farmers get a very small window of time to tackle the farm waste and prepare the field for the sowing of the next crop. Due to this lack of time, coupled with lack of financial resources and lack of sufficient and cheap labour, to dispose of waste from the previous crop harvest farmers prefer to just burn the stubble in the field itself.

However, stubble burning is not exclusive to winters as fire episodes are recorded in summers as well especially in the cities of Sirsa, Jind, Hisar and Karnal. However, as per Sunita Narain, Director General of CSE, these fire incidences go unnoticed because air pollution caused by these get dispersed due to winds and are not suspended in the atmosphere due to the thin air of summers.

Apart from particulate pollution and farm fires, Construction and demolition (C and D) waste have also increased to a high extent during the past decade due to increasing construction and infrastructure development activities. Talking about the harmful impact of Ms. Narain told NDTV,

If considered individually, dust is not an environmental threat. For example, desert areas are full of dust but there is hardly any air pollution caused by it. However, in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Varanasi, Lucknow, Kanpur, Agra, and Kolkata, dust poses threat as it gets mixed with the pollutants from combustible fuels in from vehicular and industrial exhaust and remains suspended in the air.

Also Read: A Biogas Startup By An IIT-Bombay Alumnus Aims To Fight Air Pollution And Manage Waste

Because of the burning of biomass and garbage and due to the presence of various industries, continuous construction activities and the large number of vehicles, Indo-Gangetic plain, which is a highly populated region has extremely high pollution, according to CSE. Anumita Roychowdhury, air pollution expert at CSE asserted that in order to tackle the problem of air pollution the country, it is important to first bring a change in the air quality of the Indo-Gangetic region.

Ms. Roychowdhury pointed out that in the past three years, the number of good air days has been more than the previous years and measures taken at different levels have shown some impact. But till a concerted effort is made to improve air quality across the region, isolated air pollution mitigation measures undertaken by cities individually will not achieve clean air standards, as it is a common ‘air shed’ that the region shares.

So while the national capital region of Delhi dominates a lot of the discussion and action in tackling air pollution, the focus needs to be widened something that NCAP (National Clean Air Programme) launched in 2019 aims to do with its coverage of 122 cities, but more on that a little later.

According to Ekta Shekhar, the Lead Campaigner at The Climate Agenda, the discourse on air pollution which used to be Delhi-NCR centric, has widened over the years and now the plight of residents of other cities also gets attention. She said,

This year other cities at times showed worse air quality than Delhi like Agra, Varanasi, Kanpur, and Lucknow but there has been no emergency measures like Delhi that have beenimplemented in these cities. But the positive news here is that the public concern on the impact of rising air pollution has been increasing and they have started demanding government actions to mitigate air pollution across the nation and not concentrating just on Delhi.

Also Read: Despite Government’s Push For Renewable Energy, The Polluting Thermal Power Will Continue To Dominate In India For Years To Come

Air Pollution Mitigation: What Changed In Last 10 Years

Wide Acceptance Of Air Quality Index (AQI)

In the past decade, Air Quality Index (AQI) became a parameter to monitor air pollution. This, according to experts, has been an achievement in the fight against air pollution. In 2014, National AQI methodology was established and in 2016, National Air Quality Monitoring Programme, which is managed by the CPCB in coordination with the State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs) and UT (union territory) Pollution Control Committees (PCCs), included PM 2.5 for all monitoring station under it. According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), as of September 2018, four key pollutants—sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), PM10 and PM2.5—are monitored at 703 air quality monitoring stations across 307 cities and towns in the country. Ten years ago, however, there were less than 200 air quality monitoring station across the country and the data was available for even fewer stations in the public domain, according to Mr. Mukherjee.

Launch Of National Comprehensive Action Plan (NCAP).

NCAP is envisioned as that long term plan which will work round the year to fight air pollution. NCAP was launched in January this year to reduce particulate pollution by 20-30 per cent in 122 cities across the country by 2024 from 2017 levels. It has all the steps that governments must take to control air pollution including short and long terms measures. While NCAP, if implemented properly, will bring improvement in the air quality, it misses the regional impact of air pollution, according to Ms. Roychowdhury. CSE estimates that about 4000 monitoring stations are required for NCAP in 122 identified cities to capture the trends of air pollution in these cities while currently there are only 703 monitoring stations across the country.

According to Niraj Bhatt, Researcher – Environment and Climate Change at Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG),

The approach under NCAP is cross-sectoral coordination between relevant central ministries, state governments, and local bodies for the proper implementation of the measure planned by the cities. However, there are certain loopholes in this approach like there is no legal binding. There is nothing that anyone can do if any does not adhere to action plan. No accountability. Also, most local bodies are already short of manpower and this will pose a challenge to the effective implantation of NCAP.

He also pointed out that the programme is missing the health aspect of air pollution. He asserts that health improvement should be one of the targets in the plan made under NCAP.

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Transition To Better Vehicular Emission Norms

The decade also saw some significant measures to control vehicular emissions which contribute to about 28 to 30 per cent to air pollution, as per the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. There has been a push from the government to adopt cleaner fuel and technology in running vehicles. As per the decision of the Supreme Court, the country is leapfrogging from Bharat Stage 4 (BS IV) fuel and vehicle emission standards directly to Bharat Stage 6 by April 1, 2020. The Bharat Stage (BS) emission norms are standards instituted by the government to regulate the output of air pollutants from motor vehicles. BS VI emissions norms require the installation of particulate filters to remove particulate matter from the vehicle exhaust. Thus the vehicles complying with BS VI norms are cleaner as these emit lesser sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and other toxic gases.

Apart from BS VI norms, the government is also pushing for electrification of the vehicular combustion by promoting the zero-emission electric vehicles (EVs). Earlier this year, the government launched an EV incentivising Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles in India (FAME-II) scheme with a budget of Rs. 10,000 crore to be implemented over a period of three years, with effect from April 1, 2019.

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Cleaner Fuel For Industry And Power Generation

Over the past few years, CPCB, notified sulphur oxide and nitrogen oxide standards for various industries to which the industries are expected to comply by 2022. CSE reports that India is a producer of 14 million tonnes and importer of 14 million tonnes of petcoke. Nevertheless, in a bid to reduce carbon emissions, India banned the use of petcoke and furnace oil in 2017 in four states- Delhi, Rajasthan, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh, after an order of the Supreme Court.

According to Sumit Sharma, air pollution expert in The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), the thermal power plant need to comply with the Fly Ash Management directions of CPCB in order to reduce emission. He said,

There are about 120 power plants across India and the areas around thermal power plants are some of the worst affected areas by air pollution. At the national level, the contribution of thermal power plants to pollution, especially by particulate matter produced by the gases emitted is about 7 per cent. The particulate matter emitted by thermal plants can be controlled by using electrostatic precipitator, a device that removes suspended dust particles by up to 99.9 per cent.

The government has been increasingly promoting the use of renewable energy. The government aims to install 175 gigawatt (GW) of renewable power capacity by 2022. Currently, it stands at 129.7 GW including 45.3 GW of Hydropower and 84.4 GW of other sources like solar energy and wind energy. Mandvi Singh, a solar energy expert in CSE said,

The Prime Minister had recently announced that India’s next renewable energy target will be to increase it to 450 GW, though a clear timeline was not provided for it. India has so far done a fairly good job at generating power from renewable sources which is evident from its growth of over 24 per cent in 2018. Going by the past performance, if the political remains strong and right policy and regulatory inputs are provided, India can certainly reach close to even future targets.

Also Read: High Air Pollution Can Cause Healthy Lungs To Become Like Smokers’ Lungs

Support And Subsidies To Reduce Biomass Burnings

In order to control stubble burning, Government has provided subsidies to farmers to help them purchase machines to plough back stubble. Now the Supreme Court has instructed that farmers can be paid for their stubble. However, Mr. Mukherjee highlights that there has not been a reduction in farm fires in the long term. He said, “Currently, the government is focusing on managing the farm waste in the field itself for which it is providing subsidies on machines. This approach can only bring some short term reduction. In order to make a real dent in the farm fires, a lot more has to be done like using the paddy straw for other purposes like feeding animals, making paper and cardboards and fuel for industry.”

Apart from reducing farm waste burning, measures have also been taken to manage solid waste and reduce garbage burning incidences. CPCB has started encouraging people to file a complaint against garbage burning through Sameer App after which the complaint is forwarded to the local bodies and other relevant departments which is then followed up the national body to check pollution. Household pollution mitigation is being done by promoting cleaner fuel.

Things Delhi Has Done To Fight Air Pollution

While many measure have been undertaken across the country to combat air pollution, the maximum of these have been deployed in Delhi. In Delhi, according to CSE, transportation contributed to about 39 per cent of PM 2.5 emissions followed by industries that caused around 22 per cent of PM 2.5 emissions, further followed by suspended dust and garbage/biomass burning which contributes to 18 and 12 per cent respectively. CSE further notes that in Delhi, the decadal PM 2.5 trend shows a drop of 25 per cent. However, it also highlights that there is a need to cut another 65 to 70 per cent for the air to be truly clean.

Year 2019: How Bad Is The Air We Are Breathing And What Will It Take For India To Curb Air Pollution?

Major sources of air pollution in Delhi in 2018

Here are five things that Delhi has done to tackle air pollution:

Emergency Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) in Delhi-NCR

In 2016, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) deployed Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) in Delhi-NCR to address air pollution emergencies in the region, under the directions of the Supreme Court dated December 02, 2016. The GRAP enlists emergency actions to be taken to quickly control when air pollution crosses severe levels. The measures under GRAP are implemented through the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority. These measures include: stopping the entry of truck traffic in the city, stopping construction activities, shutting of brick kilns and power plants, intensifying public transport services and sprinkling water on roads among others.

Year 2019: How Bad Is The Air We Are Breathing And What Will It Take For India To Curb Air Pollution?

Emergency measures under GRAP have resulted in a reduction in the levels of PM 2.5

Since 2016, GRAP has been deployed four times. However, experts point out that it is a mistake to think measures undertaken under GRAP can substitute the need for long term continuous action through the year that is needed to achieve clean air. GRAP are emergency measures and aim to provide temporary relief, which as per CSE’S analysis it has managed to achieve.

Stronger Air Quality Monitoring 

Air pollution in Delhi is monitored by three agencies – Delhi Pollution Control Board (DPCC), SAFAR and CPCB. The city has a dense network of monitoring system set up with over 50 stations in the region by these three agencies. “Delhi has been successful in building awareness and outrage because of the widely available information, from phone to newspaper to billboards. This kind of awareness is not in other big cities like Lucknow, Kolkata, Varanasi and others,” said Ms. Shekhar of Climate Agenda. According to Polash Mukherjee, at the starting of the decade, there were just a few monitoring stations and in Delhi and the data also was not available in the public domain. Therefore, he says, by intensifying the monitoring network by increasing the number of stations, Delhi has taken a step in the right direction as ‘more the data, more precision in planning and implementation of the anti-pollution plans’. He said,

Delhi is now very well monitored compared to other Indian cities.

Also Read: Even Short Term Exposure To Air Pollution Leading To Hospitalisation: Study

Restricting Entry Of Trucks

To control the vehicular emissions in the capital, the government of Delhi restricted the entry of trucks in the city. According to CSE experts,

Delhi has limited its truck traffic entry to the city. It has been disincentivised using a pollution tax and by expressways to bypass the city. This has reduced truck traffic into Delhi from 40,000 per night to 5,000 per night.

Shutting Coal Based Thermal Power Plant

All coal-based thermal power plants in Delhi that contributed to about 3-5 per cent of air pollution, have been permanently shut in Delhi. The thermal power plants in the surrounding regions have been asked to move to cleaner emission technology by 2020. According to CSE, industries are a major contributor to the deteriorating air quality of Delhi because of the poor quality fuel used to generate energy. To mitigate this, the Delhi government has banned pet coke and furnace oil use in the region.

Way Forward

The experts have called for a large scale change in transportation and industry. Ms. Narain notes that public transports like buses should be pushed. She further emphasised on electrifying public transportation and calls for a drastic and dramatic transformation similar to the one when CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) was introduced. Experts also recommend that like Delhi, other cities must also regulate and reform the movement of trucks in the city by building bypasses and expressways. According to experts, the coal power plants in the country have to move to cleaner emission technology of move to natural gas and renewables. The industries should be monitoring their emissions for which it should employ better emission control technology.

Experts also suggested that emissions from garbage burning can be reduced by practising segregation of waste which can help in smart disposal and recycling of the waste. According to Ms. Narain, parking policies are the need of the hour. Ms. Narain said,

We need a zero-emission mandate plan. In Beijing, the industries have moved from coal to gas which has been able to put a dent in the air pollution scenario in the city. Leanings from USA’s Policies to combat air pollution can be used as an inspiration for building region specific pollution mitigation policies in India.

She further asserted that the central government has taken a very important step towards controlling air pollution by bringing in the cleaner fuel and emission norms, BS VI, ahead of schedule.

While expressing concerns over the state of air in the country, the experts have also acknowledged that the governments and the centre and in various states are taking various actions to mitigate the threats of air pollution and are trying to improve the air quality. Ms. Narain urged the government to keep the focus of all development and mitigation actions on combating air pollution and refrain from politicising the matter.

Also Read: Why Are People Forced To Live In Gas Chamber? Supreme Court Slams Centre And States On Air Pollution

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