The signals are too ominous to ignore: Over 1.2 million Indians died prematurely due to air pollution in 2017. According to a latest ‘State of Global Air’ (SOGA) study, conducted by the Health Effects Institute (HEI), the average child born in South Asia will lose two-and-a-half years of life span due to the poor air that we breathe. Apart from moving away from the highly polluting fossil fuels to a more extensive use of renewable energy sources, there is a need to put in place more stringent emission norms, switch over to cleaner hybrid and electric vehicles and punish the polluting industries. The conflict between the imperatives of development and environmental protection presents a classic dichotomy in developing countries like India where one cannot invoke the carbon footprint narrative and ask the people aspiring to climb the economic ladder to consume less. According to a study, released by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria and the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) in New Delhi, over 674 million Indians are likely to breathe highly polluted air in 2030, even if the country were to comply with its existing pollution control policies and regulations.
Air pollution is a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke and pulmonary diseases. The shocking reality is that India still does not have a sustained national public policy to fight pollution. Only a few cities have air pollution monitoring mechanism. Knee-jerk, piecemeal measures have been at best patchy and ineffective. Only by aligning sustainable development policies to the implementation of advanced emission control technologies could India provide air quality of permissible standards to about 85% of the country’s population. A significant share of emissions still originates from sources associated with poverty and underdevelopment such as solid fuel used in households and waste management practices. In January this year, the government had launched the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), a five-year action plan to curb air pollution, build a pan-India air quality monitoring network and improve citizen awareness. The programme focuses on 102 polluted cities and aims to reduce PM2.5 levels by 20-30% over the next five years. This needs to be backed by a legal mandate to ensure successful ground-level implementation of emission control measures. Every State must commission detailed scientific studies to better understand the sources contributing to air pollution in their cities. Future belongs to alternative fuels. Fossil fuel-based vehicle must be phased out in a time-bound manner as they increase the carbon emission, posing health hazard.