By Chetan Bhattacharji
The winter of 2019-20 has seen the air pollution crisis be frequently discussed in Parliament and heard in the Supreme Court of India. Despite claims that Delhi’s pollution is down by 25%, November saw the longest spell of hazardous air quality. Nobody questions that immediate action is required but much has been promised, and a fair amount done, however, with little change. Where there is some visible change is that air pollution is now being recognized as a crisis not just in Delhi, and not just in winter season, but beyond as well. Combined with the dire warnings by climate change scientists, India’s current generation of policy makers are the only ones who can start taking immediate action.
The latest ranking of India’s most polluted cities in 2019 puts Ghaziabad on top, with Delhi at second place; October to December levels of PM 2.5 show even Kolkata and Mumbai peaking in December (Fig. 1). The provided data is by the same group, Air Visual, which showed India had 12 of the top 15 most polluted cities in 2018.
Going by the popular app, ‘S***! I Smoke’, a child born today will effectively start smoking several cigarettes immediately. Such shock-stats have been increasingly shared over the last couple of years. Now the battle against air pollution is at a critical juncture. This is not because of the terrible air pollution that shut down schools and cancelled flights in Delhi last November but also the conflation between air pollution and climate action. Climate change scientists have warned that globally emissions need to be cut rapidly, by 15% every year this decade.
Fig. 1: PM 2.5 levels, October to December, 2019; tentative values.
Source: Air Visual
2020 is vital to introduce a definite roadmap to measurably cut air pollution over the next few years. The onus singularly lies with the select few in power – policy makers, law makers and judges. Public pressure, while vibrant these days, is also seasonal. Only when there’s peak pollution in winter, does this pressure take over.
Pollution today is a very bi-partisan issue, and a relatively easy one to build political support around. Political support will help convince, or overcome lobbies entrenched in the current business-as-usual economy whether that be coal, automobiles and others.
Where to start on this is also quite clear, beginning with major industries such as transport, coal-fired power plants, construction and so on. Depending on the location and the level, contribution to air pollution of each sector or source may vary. For example, thermal power plants in the Singrauli belt or road dust in Delhi are big factors. There have been sufficient studies to show that in the Delhi region, transport, industries and road dust contribute the most towards the microscopic PM 2.5 pollutant (Fig. 2 below is based on a study of five emission inventories).
Fig. 2: What’s polluting Delhi?
There is also a third factor that is crucial, which is the ongoing economic crisis in India. As India re-builds its economy, can this be an opportunity for measures to monitor and control emissions and incentivize best ‘green practices’? For instance, make all schools, offices and businesses report their carbon footprint; and expand carbon trading to more cities and industrial belts. There are already such baby steps taken by the government – plans, experiments and trials – but the progress has been insufficient.
Air pollution, climate change and the economy are closely linked, as multiple studies have shown. However, the period of 2018-19 needs to be a turning point. If 2018 saw the Kerala floods and Chennai running out of water, 2019 was worse. A study released in December 2019 shows that India lost over $21 billion in three disasters: Cyclone Fani ($8.1 billion), Cyclone Bulbul/Matmo ($3.5 billion) and the extreme monsoon floods (over $10 billion). The study which looked at the 15 most destructive climate disasters over the past year shows that the most number of people who died, 1900, were in India.
Air pollution alone could cost India hundreds of billions of dollars more than earlier reported. World Bank estimates have shown India’s losses because of air pollution grew more than four times to $560 billion between 1990 and 2013. Life expectancy on average is calculated to be down by 2 years, and by staggering 11 years if you’re living in the Delhi region. India, especially in the northern regions, has begun to lose out on top talent in the economy as well. It’s not uncommon to hear of cases in Delhi of people turning down high-paying job offers due to the air quality, concerned diplomats getting a hardship allowance and foreigners opting to delay or call off visits for business or tourism.
Today’s children will pay, in both health and opportunities in the future, if the deadly cocktail of air pollution and climate change isn’t contained. Lancet’s 2019 ‘Countdown on health and climate change’ report shows how, with declining crop yields, infants could be the worst affected by the potentially permanent effects of under nutrition. Children are among the most susceptible to diarrhea, and suffer the most severe effects of dengue fever. Air pollution damages the heart, lungs and “every other vital organ” the most in adolescents.
But it doesn’t end here. Crop failures and disease outbreaks will increase malnutrition and long-term development problems. Floods, prolonged droughts and wildfires will be more severe. The Lancet report says, later in life, families and livelihoods are put at risk from increases in the frequency and severity of extreme weather conditions. India has already seen a flurry of these – the Kerala floods and the Chennai drought in 2018, and then again in 2019 stands out. Cyclone Fani, the heat waves, the floods followed by December’s cold wave, which was Delhi’s harshest in 118 years. The Indian Meteorological Department has put out a list of the major extreme weather events of 2019. One of India’s largest and poorest states, Bihar, suffered the worst. From heat waves to floods, the state is reported to have lost around 650 lives.
As of now, kids are already missing school due high levels of air pollution. The government has done well with its vision on climate change, increase renewable energy and to cut air pollution. The one big hurdle noticeable in the steps taken so far is the enforcement and implementation. The government’s own deadline set for itself in December 2015 to reduce emissions from coal power plants has been repeatedly delayed at least twice. Something that would help in implementation is transparency of data. Industrial emissions are closely monitored by authorities through a network of a few thousand on-site and online monitoring systems, but this data is kept away from the public even though there is public suffering because of these emissions.
It would be a welcome step if those in power also avoid the bogey of ‘Indian v. foreign’ data. The government’s draft National Clean Air Programme questioned “perplexing statistics in various international reports” and that international studies need to be supported by “indigenous studies.” Two years later in December 2019, the environment minister got flak for a statement in Parliament that there was no Indian study that linked air pollution with the shortening of life spans, something that the government’s own reports accept. Any such approach that makes it seem that officials want to sidestep the inconvenient truth is avoidable. It also does a disservice to many in the government who are committed to cutting air pollution.
At the start of 2020, the central government met with various stakeholders within and outside the government on these issues. The focus is said to be on the relevance of affordable air quality monitoring technology at a nationwide scale. This could help ramp up the number of ‘official’ air quality monitors to several thousand, ideally by the end of this year, along with increasing transparency of data. Currently there are dozens of ministries, pollution control boards and other agencies tasked with cutting air pollution. There’s a daily measurement of their success, which is the air quality reports. If there is any ‘moderate’, leave alone ‘good’, air quality day, rest assured it’s only because of weather conditions. It is perhaps time to ask if a different approach is the need of the hour.
India is now being seen as the country with the world’s worst air quality. But various governments, when pushed, have risen to the occasion and (largely) delivered. Think the 1991 economic reforms, the massive Delhi Metro project or the Aadhaar Unique Identity program. Could a Sreedharan or a Nilekani be appointed as, say, a CEO tasked to give clean air? The issue at hand is no less urgent.