New Delhi: Come winter and Delhi becomes a gas chamber. The neighbouring areas like Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Faridabad, Punjab and Rajasthan are not spared either. But, air pollution is neither a Delhi-NCR centric problem nor a winter issue. 1.67 million deaths were attributable to air pollution in India in 2019, accounting for 17.8 per cent of the total deaths in the country, as per Global Burden of Disease Study 2019, The Lancet. The same study finds that the death rate due to ambient particulate matter pollution increased by 115.3 per cent from 1990 to 2019. Additionally, lost output from premature deaths accounted for economic losses of $28.8 billion in India in 2019. And, morbidity attributable to air pollution caused an economic loss of $8 billion.
Why is India unable to solve the air pollution crisis? Is it something we have to learn to live with? As 2022 draws to a close, it is time for fresh resolve to set new goals and work towards achieving them. In our effort to find a solution to the air pollution emergency, a pressing health challenge, and to set the agenda for 2023, the NDTV-Dettol Banega Swasth India team interacted with Anumita Roy Chowdhury, Executive Director, Research and Advocacy, CSE and Professor Gufran Beig, Founder Director, SAFAR and Chair Professor, NIAS, IISc. In 2023, how to ensure clean air for all?
Air Pollution, A Perennial Health Crisis
The World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines stipulate that the average PM10 (particles with an aerodynamic diameter of 10 micrometre) level should not exceed 15 µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre of air) through the year, or 45 µg/m3 as the daily or 24-hour average. Similarly, for PM2.5 (particles with an aerodynamic diameter of equal or less than 2.5, also called fine) the recommended annual level is 5 µg/m3. However, as per IQAir, a real-time air quality information platform, in 2021, the average PM2.5 concentration in India was 58.1, which is 11.6 times the WHO annual air quality guideline value. And India was ranked as the fifth most polluted country in the country. The data and rankings for 2022 are yet to be released.
According to Dr Arvind Kumar, Chairman of the Institute of Chest Surgery, Chest Onco-Surgery and Lung Transplantation at the Medanta – The Medicity in Gurugram, inhaling polluted air is equivalent to smoking. In an earlier interview with Banega Swasth India, he had shared,
30 years back, lung cancer patients were majorly smokers in the age group of 50-60; mostly men with a history of prolonged smoking. Contrary to it, now I see more than 50 per cent of the patients to be so-called non-smokers; they are in their 30s or 40s. Also, 40 per cent of the patients today are women, also, non-smokers from non-smoking families.
Dr Kumar attributes this shift only to the exposure of so-called non-smokers to air pollution. For him, now it is a rarity to see pink lungs. He said,
About 30 years back, only smokers used to have black deposits on their lungs. Whereas non-smokers will have by and large have pink lungs. Over the years, slowly, it has changed to the extent that for the last 7-10 years, I rarely see a pink lung even in non-smokers. My horrible moment was about 7 years back when I saw black deposits on the lungs of even teenagers. I dare say, air pollution is now having the same impact on the lungs as smoking has and there is a scientific basis to prove that.
It is evident that long-term exposure to toxic air manifests itself in form of a variety of cancers, especially lung cancer. Sharing her thoughts on the health warning issued by medical experts, Ms Chowdhury said, “It is scary”. She added,
When you have very high pollution levels during winters, then you have a short-term immediate impact that triggers respiratory and cardiac conditions. It affects the vulnerable population and increases emergency hospital admission. But, round-the-year exposure to pollutants ultimately leads to metabolic diseases and a range of cancers and other problems associated with heart, stroke, and brain. Now that is scary. The burden of disease has to be at the centre of the air pollution mitigation strategy.
Why Has Air Pollution Become A Public Health Emergency?
In 2019, India launched National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) with targets to achieve a 20 per cent to 30 per cent reduction in Particulate Matter concentrations by 2024 keeping 2017 as the base year for the comparison of concentration. Under NCAP, 122 non-attainment cities have been identified across the country based on the Air Quality data from 2014-2018.
India has introduced various others plans and policies like the Comprehensive Action Plan and Graded Response Action Plan. Despite this, the air quality has consistently worsened and reaches ‘severe’ levels every year. The WHO considers air pollution a public health emergency. When asked about the reason behind it, Ms Chowdhury said,
The scale, speed and urgency of action are still very limited. We know we have to address all sources of pollution which means we need transformative changes in the energy systems that we use in industry, in power plants and in the vehicular pollution sector. Most cities do not even have a template of how to develop their public transport system, walking, cycling or vehicle restrain measures for the exclusive vehicle numbers that you see in a city like Delhi which is contributing by more than 50 per cent of the pollution on a daily basis. We don’t have a blueprint for that yet. Similarly, the waste management, we are so worried about waste burning in our cities simply because we haven’t been able to develop an infrastructure to segregate waste at a household level and then 100 per cent recovery and recycling. And the fact that legacy waste has to be remediated and we have to have a zero-landfill policy.
Often meteorological conditions are blamed for a rise in air pollution levels, especially during winters. When asked how fair it is to park the blame on climate, Professor Beig said,
Weather plays a crucial role in air quality, but the weather doesn’t generate air pollution. It maneuvers whatever is available. Secondly, the geography of a city becomes very important but that is god gifted and you can’t help it. For instance, Delhi is a landlocked city because of which it can swallow a lot but cannot vomit or disperse everything immediately and that is why it gets locked so fast. On the contrary, a city like Mumbai is surrounded by the ocean on three sides. Normally coastal regions have faster winds and because of that, every now and then there is wind reversal; the cleaner wind will come and sweep away the pollutants. This is the natural cleansing mechanism that has blessed Mumbai and many other cities. Similarly, Pune is at a high altitude and things will flow from top to bottom. But it doesn’t mean that Mumbai or Pune are releasing less transport or bio-fuel related emissions.
Professor Beig said that the root cause of the problem is emissions from different sources. If there are emissions available, the weather will maneuver, manipulate, and redistribute it.
Air Quality Monitoring, A Key To Comprehending The Burden Of Pollutants
Air pollutants measured include PM2.5, PM10, ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO) and sulfur dioxide (SO2). To be able to contain pollution, it is crucial to have data on the sources of pollution and the kind of pollutants. Elaborating on it, Professor Beig said,
To clean the air, emission inventory development is one of the biggest challenges which everyone has to fulfill. Emission inventory provides you with information on the different sources of pollutants and their relative share. India is a diverse country and here in each bigger city – from peninsular India to the northern part of India – the share of different sources of pollution changes. There are about 27 different sources – big and small; what we know is just maybe road dust and vehicular emissions. For each city, there will be brevity. For example, in Delhi, 40 per cent of the pollution comes from the transport sector and 22 per cent from the industrial sector; the contribution of the bio-fuel sector and power sector is relatively very less because power plants have been shifted outside Delhi territory. In fact, dust emissions contribute by merely 15-20 per cent to PM2.5. Bigger particles like PM10 have a larger share to the tune of 45-50 per cent. So, the priority has to be chalked out.
Regional Mitigation Target And Plan Required To Address Air Pollution
Ms Chowdhury believes that today it is actually a misnomer to differentiate between NCAP cities and non-NCAP cities. The reason being, there is very little difference in pollution levels between NCAP and non-NCAP cities and this proves that air pollution is a national crisis requiring a much wider view. She said,
We have also found that nearly both NCAP and non-NCAP cities, especially Northern India require a reduction target of about 50 per cent or more to be able to meet air quality standards. Pollution grows between boundaries and taking action in only one city is not going to help us in solving the problem. Delhi receives pollution from outside but Delhi also contributes to Noida’s pollution. This means we now need to have a comprehensive regional plan where you will bring together all the states. Now NCAP is also asking for a state-level action plan.
Sharing similar views, Professor Beig said,
The mitigation target has to be based on the location, and the present status of pollution. During the Covid lockdown, all sources of pollution were shut but still, there was pollution – as per WHO standards. And that is the level of pollution to which your body gets immune and susceptible. That is what we call baseline which differs from city to city.
What India Can Learn From China
China, once infamous for its air pollution has now got hold of the crisis and India can definitely learn from China’s experience. As per Ms Chowdhury, in 2012, China started working with a five-year plan and a target of reducing pollution by 25 per cent. The expert added,
When they talk about Beijing, it is not just Beijing city like it is not just Delhi. Beijing, 26 neighbouring cities and a much larger region around it, were brought under an integrated plan with horizontal and vertical accountability for the entire region. They focused on each sector; to control vehicular pollution, they have a quota on the number of cars that can be sold in a year. Simultaneously, they expanded their metro, BRT, bus system, and electrification of the vehicles. The way they have moved out of the dirty fuels in the region for power generation and industrial sector, it is that scale of action that has helped Beijing meet its target of not only 25 per cent but actually reducing pollution by 40 per cent by 2020.
Achieving The Sustainable Development Goal 2030
As we enter 2023, we need to be mindful of the SDG deadline of 2030. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11, target 11.6 focuses on reducing the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality. Discussing achieving the goal, Ms Chowdhury said,
Currently, all states are working on their clean air action plan, climate action plan and environmental action plan which are linked to all these SDGs goals. Why are we keeping each one of them in silos? They have to talk to each other because mitigation for most of them is common. What is interesting in India today is that the policies are changing. Policies have an objective, a lot of progressive elements and the right principles but we have to bridge the gap between that policy and the strategy for implementation on the ground with clear funding and financing strategy. Even though pollution is a big problem and in some cities, pollution is also increasing, we also know that in many cities, including Delhi-NCR, the overall long-term curve of air pollution has started to bend. Now we need to leverage that and therefore take harder decisions with people’s beliefs. While we need more public awareness around the problem of air pollution, we also need much stronger public awareness around the solutions needed for clean air.
2023 resolutions for clean air:
- A clean fuel strategy for industry, vehicle and households
- Mobility transition – a massive scaling of the public transport strategy
- A circular economy system for the management of waste generated
- A strategy to replace solid fuel in households with clean fuels
- A big greening agenda
You can listen to the full Banega Swasth India podcast discussion by hitting the play button on the Spotify player embedded above.
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.