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The growth story of India in recent decades has been marred by the steep rise in air pollution in most cities that calls for emergency measures by all stakeholders

Air pollution is extremely high in the national capital region (Photo by Emma Jespersen)

Air pollution in India’s cities, particularly in the northern plains, have risen to alarming levels, according to rankings released by the Central Pollution Control Board this week. Ghaziabad, a satellite city in the national capital region, topped the list with an average air quality index (AQI) of 258, with the metropolitan area of Delhi, and Gurgaon and Noida on its outskirts, following close behind. An AQI of 50 or less is considered good.

Astronaut Rakesh Sharma (68), the first Indian to travel in space, has said, “The pollution is clearly visible from space — the haze, the vehicular smoke. The Earth looks more grey than blue.”

When a global growth story as promising as India’s has schools shut, flights suspended and an international cricket match abruptly stopped for air pollution in its capital city Delhi, the country has an undeclared pollution emergency.

“We have had dramatic events in Delhi in the past few weeks, but it’s not India alone. In cities around Asia, we are getting to air pollution levels that are not only affecting health, but also our daily lives. Room air purifiers are now much more common than a few years back,” Rob De Jong, Nairobi-based Head of UN Environment’s Air Quality and Mobility Unit, told “In many cities, people instead of looking at the weather forecast, are looking at the air pollution forecast to decide whether their children can go play outdoor sports. We are indeed in a very strange situation.”

“Air pollution is one of the biggest public health issues confronting the world today. It’s responsible for 6.5 million premature deaths every year,” agreed Maria Neira, Geneva-based Director of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health department at the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Air pollution is the single biggest environment killer, according to UN Environment, and fourth-leading risk factor for deaths worldwide, with one in 10 deaths attributable to it, according to WHO. Over 80% of cities don’t meet UN health standards on air quality.

Climate change is also modifying weather patterns, affecting the levels and occurrence of pollutants and airborne allergens, such as ozone and pollen, and in some cases exposing people to higher concentrations over longer periods than in previous decades.

“We are getting ready to exploit space, other planets,” Sharma said at a recent meeting of UN environment in Nairobi. “Let us first clean up our act here now, or else we will pollute other planets as well.”

Serious about air pollution

It is difficult to say whether India is serious about getting air pollution to safe levels. “I think India is probably serious. Around the world, governments of polluted cities are now serious about tackling pollution,” Jong said. “In Delhi, we had actually seen progress when public transport was moved to CNG (compressed natural gas in the late 1990s).”

“What can be done in India is not very different from other big cities in the world,” he said. “Air pollution is not coming from transportation alone. In some cities it is from transportation, in others from polluting industries. So there is no one golden-bullet solution.”

China, which also suffers from poor air quality, is taking action on five or six fronts simultaneously — banning polluting industries, closing some down, and also stopping odd-even numbered cars alternately. “What we can do immediately is look at Chinese cities — all two-wheeler tuk-tuks are electric. In India they are not (referring to auto-rickshaw public transport). There is no reason why in India, we cannot do this tomorrow. This is not a technology issue, not a financial issue. It is an issue of decision-making,” Jong said. “Similarly, we need to provide better facilities for walking and cycling — what we call active transport. “The third imperative is somewhat long-term — automated modes of transport such as self-driving cars.”

The problem of air pollution needs immediate attention because of its health implications. “The health of people is the mandate of elected governments. The situation on the streets of Delhi is indeed very important from the political point of view because the decision will come from a political willingness to take action to reduce air pollution,” Neira told “That political willingness is there, but it needs to be more activated.”

India also needs to regulate pollution from the construction industry. A large proportion of vehicles (both public and private) are quite old in the country and pollution from them is much higher. “Use of dirty fuels for cooking is another major source of pollution, affecting especially the health of women and small children in India. But poorer people are using these because obviously they don’t have access to clean ones,” the WHO official said.

Agricultural waste incineration, though seasonal, is another major polluter, according to Neira. Jong said that wherever in India biomass is being burnt, there must be a solution in place for using it more productively, be it making compost or using it to generate bio-fuels. “India is well aware that to control the dangerous levels of its air pollution, inter-sectoral decisions and action are needed,” Neira said.

India needs the ministries of Science and Technology, Health, Energy and Environment to take concerted joint action, India’s Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan had said in the recent UN Environment Assembly.

“With the (rapid) technology development India is now seeing, with some more commitment India can achieve substantial reduction of air pollution,” Neira said. “You already have a parliamentary task force looking exclusively at the issue. Legislation for vehicular pollution already exist and only need stricter enforcement.”

“What India can learn from European nations, which 30 years back were as highly polluted as India, China and Indonesia are today, but cleaned up their air considerably, is that there is no contradiction between economic growth and fighting pollution and the sources of pollution (industries, for instance),” Neira said.

Mitigating climate change

India’s action to reduce air pollution will mitigate climate change at the same time because some causes of greenhouse gas emissions are the same. If short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon and ground level ozone is tackled, India gains triple benefits — health, climate mitigation and cleaner air.

On costs of addressing the massive air pollution, Neira said India could reduce a large amount pollution with the technologies it already possesses. “If you look at the health costs people in Delhi are already paying, then investments (even if high) hold less significance,” she said.

Closely linked to lost health is a huge economic cost. A recently published report by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health says that welfare losses due to all types of pollution are estimated at over USD 4.6 trillion each year, equivalent to 6.2% of global economic output. It says pollution-related premature deaths and diseases impose huge productivity losses, especially in rapidly industrialising countries like India, which from air pollution alone loses 0.32% of gross domestic product every year.

“Focussing on the quality of growth is key for improvements in quality of life,” said Ligia Noronha, Director of UN Environment’s Economy Division. “That requires a culture that supports responsible production and does not hold up unrestrained consumption as an aspirational way of life. We need to invest differently to transform our economies, also bringing in the private sector to back clean growth.”


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