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Not much will happen despite efforts to clean up the air in India’s cities and villages till we acknowledge the deep-seated issues and set aggressive reduction targets for a variety of sources

Air pollution in New Delhi and other cities in India has become hazardous for human health (Photo by Wikimedia Commons)

Air pollution in New Delhi and other cities in India has become hazardous for human health (Photo by Wikimedia Commons)

Each year, we fight to claim our right over clean air. We have instituted and operationalised the Graded Response Action Plan for Delhi and the National Capital Region; our courts are demanding greater accountability from polluters as well as pollution control boards of central and state governments; and there is a concerted effort by civil society groups to make data transparent, create awareness, and catalyse a stronger public voice.

Yet, for the ordinary citizen, there seems to be an overwhelming feeling that the progress being made is not commensurate with the efforts in place. In the days leading to last Diwali, air quality in several cities across northern India once again deteriorated to ‘severe’ or ‘very poor’ levels.  For instance, the Air Quality Index for Agra, Bhiwadi, Muzzafapur, Lucknow, Delhi and Noida were in the ‘very poor’ category. This is in spite of measures such as restricting construction activities, instituting different coloured stickers to identify the most polluting vehicles, restricting use of pet coke in industry and the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) setting up a social media account to attend to complaints.

If we are to fix the air pollution issue, experts, governments and citizens alike need to first acknowledge the deep-seated issues that drive pollution.

At its core, air pollution is a sustainability battle. Reducing crop burning is about our struggle for sustainable agriculture; mitigating transport emissions is about our struggle for sustainable mobility; reducing power plant emissions is about access and sustainability of energy systems. In the absence of this perspective, a majority of our solutions are reactive and designed for the short-term. Our pollution narrative, therefore, remains a largely urban, Delhi-centric conversation. Not surprisingly, our solutions are primarily techno-economic in nature. This needs to change.

Victims of air pollution

We have failed to acknowledge that, contrary to popular belief, pollution in rural India may be as high as those in urban settings. The Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) in collaboration with Purelogic Labs installed 48 air quality sensors in four districts (Ludhiana, Pathankot, Hoshiarpur and Sangrur) across rural Punjab. Data from these sensors indicate that average PM2.5 values for the month of October were in the range of 112 -310 micrograms per cubic metre for Ludhiana. From this perspective, farmers are not culprits but the victims of polluted air, just as much as residents of Delhi. PM2.5 is particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns – it consists largely of dust and soot.

The farmers are also the victims of a distorted incentive structure. The authorities have created incentives for farmers to plant paddy in a water scarce region, depend on excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides, and shift away from traditional methods and crops suitable for the region. Unless we start seeing it as a deep-seated land, water and air nexus issue, our entire effort will only be directed towards managing paddy straw – through Happy seeders, biomass power plants or straw-to-bio-diesel technologies. This may arrest the burning but will fail to address the soil degradation or water issues.  Our interactions with Punjab’s farmers highlighted that they too wanted to move away from paddy farming. We need to create incentives to facilitate that.

EVs and public transport

Electric vehicles offer a sliver of hope for curbing vehicular pollution. The official target is that 30% of new sales in 2030 will be EVs. We are seeking a high cost technological fix through EVs, rather than aggressively pursuing public transportation. Private transportation and the infrastructure it needs constantly reinforce the dominance of this mode of transport. A focus on creating more parking spaces to alleviate woes for private vehicle owners, when faced with a deficit in public transportation investment, is a dystopian reality of cities in India today.

From 2007 to 2017, road-based freight transport in India increased nearly two and a half times from 0.9 to 2.4 million tonne-kilometres. In contrast, in several developed countries the share of road-freight is either constant or declining.  Banning trucks or re-routing them on peripheral roads merely shifts the pollution source out of the city, but air-borne pollutants will find a way back.

Power woes

The political economy of the power sector has resulted in a situation where despite having ‘surplus power’, a lack of reliable power results in the rampant use of diesel generating sets as backup for telecom towers peppered across the landscape, commercial buildings and luxury residences in urban areas. In rural areas, it creates a dependence on kerosene for lighting. Our surveys have found that in rural areas in the Indo-Gangetic plain, about 20% households use kerosene lamps as the primary source of lighting.

Even in the National Capital Region in and around Delhi – which is always under the scanner – there is no clear consensus on how much each source of pollution emits. Across different studies, emissions from the transportation activities in Delhi vary from 116,00 to 339,00 kilogrammes per day; the industry sector from 1,300 to 3,000 kilogrammes per day; waste burning from 1,770 to 3,300 kilogrammes per day. The range is too wide to be useful. The absence of a common framework for data collection could potentially result in misplaced efforts to abate pollution.

Addressing even one of these challenges is bound to take time, given the complexity involved. It is no surprise then that it has taken several years for the United States and Europe to achieve their air quality standards. We all want clean air. Having made the demand, we need to set aggressive reduction targets from various sources and each one of us must contribute in the pursuit. Pollution has no quick fix.

Hem H. Dholakia and Karthik Ganesan are researchers at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), an independent not-for-profit policy research institution.

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