Tackling pollution must be a priority

Breathing in India’s cities seems to have become a dangerous activity. It is almost as deadly as using tobacco. According to a recent report issued by global environment NGO, Greenpeace,  air pollution in India claims the lives of around 1.2 million people annually, just a “fraction less” than tobacco deaths in the country. The report provides a list of India’s most polluted cities in 2015. Delhi tops this list with particulate matter of diameter smaller than 10 microns (PM10) levels of 268g/m3 and is followed by Ghaziabad, Allahabad and Bareli. Between October and February, Delhi’s most polluted months, PM10 concentrations touched 500 g/m3 in 2015. The national capital’s PM10 levels are 4.5 times higher than the National Ambient Air Quality Standards annual limit set by the Central Pollution Control Board, and around 13 times the annual limit set by the World Health Organisation.  Worryingly, other cities are racing to catch up with Delhi. Air quality in Bengaluru, which is the worst among cities in Karnataka, is deteriorating rapidly. The Greenpeace report points out that of the 168 Indian cities it assessed, not a single city complies with air quality standards prescribed by WHO, while only “a few” southern cities met CPCB standards.

Hitherto, policy initiatives and public discourse on air pollution have focused on Delhi. This isn’t surprising given the severity of the pollution problem facing the national capital; it is assuming crisis proportions. However, air pollution isn’t a Delhi problem alone. It is a national problem and deserves strong policies on a national level.  Measures are being introduced amidst much fanfare but several of these are knee-jerk responses, more in the nature of emergency responses than aimed at long-term reduction of air pollution. The odd-even scheme for cars introduced in Delhi would fall under this category. In addition to such measures, India needs a more comprehensive, systematic and well-thought out plan of action with clear targets and deadlines to tackle air pollution. Besides reducing vehicular pollution, India must do more to cut down on fossil fuels.

Air pollution in India is not only a public health crisis but also it has enormous negative implications for the economy. A World Bank study points out that pollution costs the Indian economy around $560 billion or 8.5% of the GDP annually.  Successive governments have ignored the pollution problem arguing that robust measures will impede India’s economic growth. This isn’t so. Tackling pollution will reduce its economic costs. It is possible to address air pollution but it will require the central, state and municipal governments as well as different ministries and pollution boards to pull in the same direction.

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