The latest report of the World Health Organisation (WHO) on air pollution makes a disturbing reading as Indian cities are among the worst in terms of air quality. Delhi remains the most polluted mega city in the world, followed by Cairo and Dhaka. What is more disquieting is that the air quality monitoring system in India is pathetic and the pollution is not just confined to big cities but is a major cause for concern for smaller cities and towns as well.
The report, which compiled the 2016 data for 4,300 cities, ranks 14 Indian cities among the 20 most polluted ones globally. This is a dubious distinction that India should never aspire for. Toxic air pollutants had claimed 4.2 million lives in 2016 alone while 3.8 million people succumbed to dirty cooking fuels such as wood and cow dung.
Nearly one-third of these deaths occurred in the Southeast Asian region, which includes India. The numbers may go up significantly once the monitoring mechanism improves in these regions. Unfortunately, several Indian cities and towns do not have stations to monitor PM 2.5 (particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns that lodges easily into the lungs) levels.
This means that the actual extent of the problem often gets underestimated. According to the recently published draft National Clean Air Programme, there are no air pollution monitoring stations in rural India. There is no data on the extent of pollution resulting from insecticide use and crop-burning in rural areas.
Air pollution is a major risk factor for heart diseases, 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.
Though smoke from farm fires in the northern region is a major culprit in the rising air pollution in Delhi, the National Green Tribunal’s order to check the practice has fallen on deaf ears with the state agencies indulging in a blame game. In contrast, China has made significant progress in fighting pollution by pulling outdated high-emission cars off the roads, improving public transportation and encouraging production and use of cleaner vehicles.
The indoor cookstoves, road traffic, industrial plants and open burning of waste are among the major contributors to air pollution. Simple steps can have a significant impact. For instance, India can cut its total air pollution by one-third overnight by giving clean cooking stoves to all its villagers. Encouraging public transport, opting for clean energy alternatives, uniform green regulations, stringent norms for vehicular emissions and decentralised environment management protocols with active public participation are effective ways to check pollution.