Killer air

A recent international report on air quality in India has placed the country among the lowest five in the world, of the 178 countries surveyed for the purpose. It has only Pakistan, China, Nepal and Bangladesh behind it in air pollution levels. The study has also found that air pollution in Delhi is worse than in Beijing, which had till now been considered the most polluted city in the world.

The findings have been questioned for their methodology with respect to Delhi, with officials maintaining that the average levels of pollution are lower in the city, though the peak levels of particulate matter have regularly exceeded threshold levels of danger. The argument is funny, because the average is only a mathematical idea. No one breathes the average. People only inhale the real air which is high or low in pollution.

It is also immaterial whether Delhi or Beijing is more polluted. The point is that air pollution levels in Delhi are about five times the prescribed tolerance levels and the situation is steadily deteriorating. The DeIhi government had taken some steps about a decade ago to improve the city’s air quality, like introducing low sulphur fuels, implementation of a CNG programme and phasing out of old vehicles. These had tangible results but there is a slide again in the last five years.

The number of vehicles has doubled, the old measures have proved inadequate, the smog has returned and the levels of particulate matter have risen to dangerous levels, except during a few weeks of the year. In Beijing there is a better understanding of the problem and serious efforts are made to deal with it, in the short and longer term. It is not done in Delhi. Particulate matter pollution has come down in Beijing in the past three years,  while it has increased in Delhi.

Air quality has deteriorated in other cities too, including  Bangalore. India’s national score on environmental performance has fallen 100 per cent in the last decade. It is estimated that the number of premature deaths caused by outdoor air pollution jumped to over six lakh in 2010 from one lakh in 2000.

The medical cost of treatment of ailments caused by air pollution is high. Increasing urbanisation, with its attendant features, cannot be reversed. But there is the need for greater investment in environmental protection and better implementation of clean air policies all over the country to ensure good air quality.

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