Capital Punishment: India's impending pollution crises

New Delhi: A pair of birds rest on the branches of a tree as it is shrouded in smog, in New Delhi, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019.

In the poignant and profound memoir ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ on his life and illness, battling stage IV metastatic lung cancer, Paul Kalanithi writes and I quote, “I would have to learn to live in a different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.” The title of his book serves as a metaphor for the ‘capital punishment’ that we all face from the impending air pollution crises of our cities. We truly have to learn to live in a different way, before we die.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates the health burden from air pollution in India at close to 1.8 million annual deaths. Most of these premature deaths occur as a result of the constant exposure to small particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less in diameter (PM2.5), that cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and, worse still, cancers. The ambient air quality measured by the annual exposure to PM 2.5 in the capital city — New Delhi — is 143, against the WHO guideline of 10. The national air quality average by the same measure stands at 62. Most other cities in India fare no better.

It is the poor and the vulnerable people living at the margins of urban society that experience the disproportionate burden of outdoor air pollution. The WHO points to the fact that 91% (of the 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide) occur in low- and middle-income countries. The public health emergency declared recently in the national capital serves as more than a cautionary tale. It is the manifestation of our collective failure as a society and not just of the government. The recent observations of the two-judge bench of the Supreme Court reinforce this sense of helplessness when all that resulted was the hauling of the hapless chief secretaries of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh over the coals. Simply put, a meaningful response is not a knee-jerk reaction of blame allocation; it has to be a source allocation-based coordinated response.

The first step is to recognise that this is not a problem of the government alone. It is axiomatic that the response to the air pollution crises must be multi-stakeholder driven. Any rudimentary source allocation study and there are many, would point to the fact that all of us, unconcernedly, contribute to air pollution — households, agriculture, industry, transport — and therefore the potential solutions rest on the tripod of garnering data and evidence, a coherent policy framework  and, sustained and coordinated action. As in the case of Delhi, some sources contributing to poor ambient air quality are beyond the control of individuals and demands concerted action by local, national and regional policymakers. In most cities though, meeting the imperative of the government, the private sector, the community, and civil society working together should suffice. We need only overcome the compulsions of profit and the political economy.

The second step is to recognise that the spectre of air pollution has serious long-term implications. The constraint is not resources — of money or knowledge — but of the absence of a collective will. We must change the way we live, and the way we manage our cities. The spectre of air pollution results not just in morbidity and mortality; it influences climate change, too. Short-lived climate pollutants (SLCP) are among those pollutants most linked with both health effects and near-term warming of the planet. The principal sources of air pollution are black carbon, produced mostly from the burning of coal, diesel, kerosene or biomass; ground-level ozone formed from precursor pollutants; and methane emissions, primarily from agriculture and livestock production.

A good start for coherent and coordinated action would be to address sector-specific proximate causes that would enable local action by the principal stakeholders — transporters, industry, agriculture, and the urban local bodies. The government must play the role of the arbiter, coordinator, and exercise moral suasion, to enable sector-specific stakeholder action in segueing the impact of external interventions into adaptive and sustainable community practices. The government needs to establish a framework of incentives and disincentives, including regulatory action to drive the air pollution mitigation action.

Raising emissions standards for all vehicles to compel heavy polluters off the road and reducing high-sulphur fuels will be an important first step. The industry must be compelled to embrace clean production technologies that reduce industrial smokestack emissions; the city corporations must prioritise improved management of urban and biomass waste, including harnessing methane gas emitted from waste sites as an alternative to incineration. On waste management, it is imperative that the BBMP redesign its strategies for waste reduction, waste separation, recycling and reuse or waste reprocessing. This must be through a community participatory approach.

A concerted decentralised effort to promote affordable clean household solar energy solutions for cooking, heating and lighting must become a mass movement. The mass rapid transport systems like the Metro and Suburban Rail must be fast-tracked by providing priority funding support. As our cities grow and the demand for bricks grows, we need to ensure that we modernise the brick kilns that proliferate in the periphery of cities and towns. Improved brick kilns can cut emissions by up to half.

The elephant in the room, however, is agriculture and livestock. Livestock production with its heavy water, feed and energy requirements is a major source of methane emissions from ruminant animals like cattle. Rice production in continuously flooded fields is also a major source of methane. Both have climate warming impacts. There is only one and arduous route to addressing these traditional livelihoods – sustained community engagement that can help modernise traditional practices. 

Air pollution affects all of us. In the Keynesian sense, yes, we are all dead in the long run. But it is unconscionable to let people die prematurely, simply because we don’t care. We need to take a deep breath and ponder the future of our children and grandchildren. There is only one moral imperative — we must act.

(The writer is Director, Public Affairs Centre)

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