A national shame: Poor air quality needs concerted government action

In data released last week by the World Health Organisation (WHO), detailing its comparison of air pollution levels in various cities across the world in 2016, Indian cities and towns fared particularly badly. That is, in fact, an understatement. According to the WHO, 14 of the 15 most polluted global cities are in India. The national capital, Delhi — known for struggling with its air pollution levels — is ranked sixth on the list. Five Indian cities are more polluted: The Delhi suburb of Faridabad; Bihar’s capital city of Patna as well as its second-largest city, Gaya; and two of Uttar Pradesh’s largest cities — Varanasi (Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency), and the industrial hub of the state, Kanpur, which has the dubious honour of being declared the most polluted city in the world. The Uttar Pradesh state capital, Lucknow, comes seventh on the list, just after Delhi, followed by the Western UP hub of Agra and then Bihar’s fourth-largest city, Muzaffarpur. Other Indian cities in the top 15 include the two largest cities in Rajasthan, Jaipur and Jodhpur; Srinagar in Kashmir; Patiala in Punjab; as well as the other large Delhi suburb, Gurugram.

India is in the midst of an air quality crisis that extends beyond just the National Capital Region. Even the financial capital of Mumbai now has pollution levels, measured in terms of PM 2.5, equivalent to those of Beijing — for years, the benchmark in terms of bad air. This is extraordinary, given that Mumbai benefits from strong maritime breezes, which should help clear the air. Yet, the list of the top 14 is particularly disturbing, for it suggests that the problem of air quality is particularly intense in the northern plains — the states these cities are in are Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, meaning the entire swathe of the Indo-Gangetic valley is dangerously polluted. No southern or eastern cities figure, or even those in Pakistan, although industrial concentrations in those areas are not inconsiderable. It is clear, therefore, that this is not a problem linked directly to industrial production. Other issues are also involved.

As efforts to control Delhi’s air pollution have shown, the question of reducing particulate matter in the air requires solutions across states; no one state can do it alone. Wind patterns are such that particulate matter, black carbon and so on are blown across state boundaries. Yet, of the states in question, almost all — except Punjab — are run by the Bharatiya Janata Party either by itself or in coalition. That provides a silver lining. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself could, if he made it an issue of political will, create a consensus across these states for speedy action. It would be unfortunate if this data was dismissed out of hand by the Indian government, and by the relevant state governments. It is true that some countries — for example, many in Africa — have not been able to provide up-to-date data on air quality and so India might not be as completely the worst performer that this data suggests. Yet the trend is clear: China’s cities, once the most polluted, are improving thanks to careful government action, while Indian cities, including Delhi, are getting worse.

The first step, of course, must be ensuring that vehicular emissions standards are high and stringently implemented, even in Tier-II towns. The Union government must not listen to any more lobbying from car companies on the subject. Smoke from open household fires may have decreased thanks to the availability of LPG connections, but the degree to which this has succeeded must be examined with impartial data. The Smart Cities programme must prioritise re-planning cities with public transport hubs, in order to reduce vehicular traffic. Finally, construction norms should be stringently implemented. Dust from open construction sites is a strong contributor to PM 2.5 levels. India’s air quality is a national shame, and must be tackled on a war footing.

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