Curbing pollution: India is in a race against time

Curbing pollution: India is in a race against time
Dirty air dooms Indians to early death. Together with dirty water, it killed over 2.5 million people in 2015 alone – more than 27% of all such deaths worldwide. If any other factor was responsible for so many deaths in one year in India it would have been a state of emergency. But these shocking findings have failed to provoke emergency response on a nation-wide scale.

The evidence for pollution’s killer impact have come quickly after several other credible studies had already warned about this health emergency in India. The Global Burden of Disease (GBD) estimate has shown that indoor (household) air pollution from solid fuel-burning is responsible for over 1.04 million premature deaths and loss of 31.4 million life-years due to illness annually. Outdoor air pollution kills another 627,000 and leads to loss of 17.8 million more life-years annually. In fact, household air pollution also contributes as much as 25% of the outdoor air pollution. The number of premature deaths due to particulate air pollution in India has nearly equaled China’s dubious record.

Earlier this year, the WHO had pressed yet another alarm that children below five years are at the highest risk from pollution and close to 48 children below five years die per 1,000 live births in India due to air pollution, compared to 10.7 in China, 16.4 in Brazil and 40.5 in South Africa. This is scary, as close to 40% of India’s children live in urban areas that are fast turning into gas chambers. The most common causes of death in children less than five years of age continue to be pneumonia and respiratory illnesses. Children are more active and inhale more air and therefore more of the pollutants than do adults.

It is also shameful that even after decades of air quality management and reduction in overall use of solid fuels, the Census count still shows an increase in the number of households using solid fuels in the country. According to the 2001 census, some 100 million households used firewood as fuel. But the 2011 census showed an increase in the number of households using firewood to nearly 121 million. Thus, India is still caught in a chulha trap, and its smoke causes low birth weight, asthma, tuberculosis, cataracts and cancer. Women and children are most vulnerable. But significant numbers of these deaths and illness are immediately avoidable if the clean-up job is done well.

Need action. Not denial

Mounting health evidence has often provoked government to simply deny the health risk from air pollution. In response to a series of questions in Parliament on the health effects of air pollution since 2016, as well as in its submission to the Supreme Court in the ongoing public interest litigation on air pollution in Delhi, the Union Environment Ministry has claimed that air pollution is only one among many factors, and its effects are uncertain and inconclusive. It has sought more studies in the national context. It will be suicidal for India to not act on the existing health information and seek more evidence from our own children, elderly and vulnerable. There is no room for diffidence and denial of the problem anymore.

The Union Health Ministry, meanwhile, has looked into the link between health and air pollution more closely in 2015 and has recommended an integrated framework for managing air pollution that prioritises tracking people’s actual exposure to dangerous pollutants to reduce health risk and ensure cross-sector coordination among government agencies. But this framework has not taken shape yet. Even though the Central Pollution Control Board has set the ambient air quality standards under the Air Act and its rules require that these standards are met for 98% of the time in a year, there is no clear mechanism to make cities implement clean air action plans to meet these standards in a time-bound manner.

Delhi and the national capital region (NCR), a major pollution hotspot, throws up many lessons for others. Public outcry over killer smog and judicial intervention has ultimately compelled implementation of graded response action plans for emergency response to daily pollution levels this year. This has already led to closure of one coal powerplant, conventional brick kilns, and many diesel generator sets as well as stronger policing of waste-burning and construction activities this winter. The Supreme Court has also mandated Delhi-NCR to frame and implement a comprehensive action plan for long-term strategy. Already, trucks have to pay an environment compensation charge to enter Delhi and the use of dirty industrial fuels -- pet coke and furnace oil -- have been banned. Such action will have to be scaled up across India as nearly half of the cities have particulate matter levels that are officially classified as “critical”.

Cities need a roadmap to assess and act on all pollution sources – vehicles, industry, powerplants, construction activities and waste burning. Motorisation presents a special challenge as vehicles cause high toxic exposure but their numbers are difficult to control. Car-centric street design and urban sprawl are increasing travel distances and automobile dependence, and discouraging walking, cycling and public transport usage. Cities need interconnect strategies to reverse this trend to cut toxic exposure.

On the other hand, killer indoor air pollution requires a clean energy strategy to make LPG and electricity affordable and accessible to the poor. Ongoing programmes like Ujwala need to be scaled up to restructure and transfer subsidies for clean fuel to benefit the poor better.

India is running against time. Even if air pollution remains just as it is today, the number of lives lost will continue to grow as the population grows and ages. Therefore, pollution levels and health risk would have to decline significantly to offset this effect.

(The writer is Executive Director – Research and Advocacy, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi)
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