Act on air pollution

Act on air pollution

World Environment Day

It’s World Environment Day today, and the United Nations Environment Programme has set ‘air pollution’ as the theme for 2019. Air pollution is now a public health emergency. Some seven million people die prematurely every year worldwide because of polluted air, with more than half of these deaths in the Asia-Pacific alone. The World Health Organisation has dubbed it the ‘new tobacco’ — breathing severely polluted air is as bad as smoking 20 cigarettes a day!

The problem is particularly severe in India. Of the 10 most polluted cities in the world, seven are in this country. We lose 1.2 million people and more than 10% of farm produce due to air pollution. There are 102 ‘non-attainment’ cities where the air quality is below the standards prescribed by the Central Pollution Control Board. 

The National Clean Air Action Programme was launched by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in January 2019 “to prevent, control and reduce unhealthy air pollution”. While it details out some comprehensive action points, the big gaps are that the programme remains advisory, with no legal implications for non-compliance and the lack of fiscal and funding mechanism.

In Bengaluru, the pleasant weather, blue sky and the historical reputation of being clean and green mask today’s reality — the city is on the ‘non-attainment’ list, and has a serious air pollution problem. Especially threatening are the consistently high levels of PM2.5 — a pollutant so tiny that it escapes the body’s natural defence mechanisms like nasal hair and mucus, enters the lungs and the bloodstream, from where it can affect most vital organs.

The effects of the exposure citizens face are evident — 25% of the city’s children have asthma, and 20% of the severe heart attack cases in Jayadeva’s cardio ICU are due to air pollution. Children, elderly, pregnant women and a baby in the womb are disproportionately affected by air pollution, but no one is immune – outdoor exercisers, commuters and pedestrians all face extremely high levels of exposure to bad air in their daily routines. 

Interestingly, Bengaluru’s pollution is a resident problem — the sources are all local, and so are the potential solutions. Unlike the situation in the Indo-Gangetic plains, where climate and external factors contribute to the seasonal crisis in air quality, Bengaluru’s pollutants mostly come from sources within the city.

A study by The Energy and Resources Institute in 2006 revealed that vehicles are the primary source of PM2.5, and another in 2015 by Urban Emissions confirmed this — vehicular exhaust and re-suspended road dust contribute to 56% of the PM2.5. Other sources are diesel generators, burning of garbage, including leaves and brick kilns.

There are two pathways to clean air in Bengaluru. The first involves improving civic infrastructure and services which have direct impact on air quality — better public transport so that private vehicle usage is not the preferred choice; improved facilities to encourage non-vehicular transport like walking, cycling; availability of reliable and continuous electricity; better waste disposal; infrastructure to encourage electrification of vehicles; stricter enforcement of construction regulations, etc. The agencies responsible for these must be made transparent, efficient and must enforce existing regulations. 

New regulations and plans need to be inclusive and focus on implementation. In the recently submitted ‘Action Plan for Control of Air Pollution in Bangalore City’, the Karnataka Pollution Control Board articulates 44 points along with timelines and the agencies responsible, while addressing most sources of pollution. However, there is no attempt to address some of the challenges that resulted in the failure of the earlier plans.

For example, conversion of two-stroke autorickshaws has been in the plan for 15 years — it has not been accomplished mainly because of the red-tapism over the subsidy, which left autorickshaw drivers without income for months during the transition. The new plan has a new deadline for this conversion, but no indication of any different way of doing so.

Further, the solutions need to be scientific. It is useful that the BBMP is acknowledging the high exposure levels that citizens face in the city’s pollution hotspots (as opposed to relying on ambient air quality). However, the prescription of using air-purifiers is extremely arbitrary and disregards the experiences from other cities where they have failed. Repeated studies have shown that air purifiers do not work outdoors – the vast resources that would be required to cover the city could be well spent on evidence-based solutions.

The second pathway involves encouraging behaviour change in Bengalureans that will reduce the air pollution burden. Civil society needs to be motivated and incentivised to act in a cleaner and greener manner.

At an individual level, here are three actions that can have large impact.

Change how you move around: Opting for public/shared transport or cycling and walking, switching to renewable fuels and energy, and maintaining efficiency of your vehicle by testing and regular maintenance will have a huge impact in the emission levels.

Minimise, segregate waste: Reducing consumption of single-use plastics, reusing and recycling, can go a long way in decreasing toxic fumes that come from waste-burning. Segregating garbage and composting locally at source can prevent much of it reaching landfills or your neighbourhood corners.

Get involved: Don’t tolerate unregulated construction, waste-dumping, leaf burning and other polluting activities in your neighbourhood. Get involved in local governance through ward committee meetings and ensure enforcement of regulations.

Civil society, activist groups, researchers, innovators, corporates and philanthropists must all come forward with their strengths and enable each other. Only such collaboration between all sections will help move towards a Bengaluru with cleaner air.

(The writers are part of the Clean Air Platform, a collaborative group working to improve Bengaluru’s air quality)

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox