World Environment Day | Sharp Focus On ‘Air Pollution’

This year’s theme of the World Environment Day today is ‘Air Pollution’, which indeed is a subject of concern globally and specially in India. Over the past few years, very poor air quality in Indian cities has become a national issue. It began with international studies pointing out severe levels of air pollution were resulting in premature deaths of millions in India. But what really jolted the Indian authorities were the high levels of air pollution in nation’s capital, Delhi and adjoining regions, Kolkata and other metro cities over past few winters.

India, with 18% of the world’s population, has a disproportionately high 26% of global premature deaths and disease burden due to air pollution. Moreover, one in eight deaths in India was attributable to air pollution in 2017, making it a leading risk factor for death. This is revealed as per the first comprehensive estimates of reduction in life expectancy associated with air pollution in each State, published by India State-Level Disease Burden Initiative, a venture of Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) and Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), in collaboration with Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, along with experts and stakeholders associated with over 100 Indian institutions.

Given the seriousness, the Environment Ministry had released the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) this January, plans to reduce air pollution in the 102 worst affected cities by 20-30 per cent by 2024 with action plans drawn up for Central, State and local bodies. The proposed reduction in inhalable particulate matter (PM) by 2024 from the 2017 levels would be a challenging target.

The Programme would initially focus on such cities as Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Kolkata, Delhi, Kanpur, Lucknow, Mumbai, etc. where the air quality has been persistently below permissible limits. The Plan outlines multiple actions and their timeframe for authorities seeking to curb vehicular, industrial and thermal power emissions and also reduce air pollution from the burning of crop residue and firewood, brick production, construction and other activities.

Though some initiatives are on-going, the plan calls on city authorities to immediately establish early alarm systems to identify traffic congestion zones and allow commuters to seek alternative routes, enforce bans on open burning of biomass and tyres and retrofit diesel vehicles with particulate filters. It calls on transport authorities to stringently enforce the Bharat VI emission norms for vehicles, which are to come into effect from April 2020.  However, such actions should have been outlined along with penalty clauses much earlier.

It is understood that air pollution network will be expanded from 703 to 1500 stations nationwide by 2024. City authorities have also been asked to introduce mechanised sweeping and plant vegetation filters along roads and highways, while agricultural department has been asked to expand actions to curb the burning crop residues.

Undoubtedly, the NCAP is a good beginning – better late than never. Controlling air pollution would go a long way in curbing cardiovascular diseases, respiratory disorders and attendant health impacts that lead to hundreds of thousands premature deaths. A study released in December estimated that air pollution caused 1.24 million premature deaths in India during 2017 alone.

Meanwhile, another recent annual report by the Centre for Science & Environment (CSE)  ‘State of India’s Environment 2019’, which classified 29 States based on their socio-economic index (SDI), found that nearly 40% of air pollution related deaths in 2017 were recorded from UP, Bengal, and Maharashtra. Of all States, Bengal’s rank has been fourth. According to the SDI classification, however, Bengal tops its category, while UP tops in the low category and Maharashtra in the high bracket. Thus, the contemplated reductions within five years may be somewhat unrealistic. Moreover, environmental scholars and activists have described the NCAP’s targets not quite judicious as it would take several more years to significantly improve air quality.

Emission cuts for industries and farms haven’t yet been enforced and controlling the levels of particulate matter with diameter up to 2.5 microns (PM 2.5) is imperative due to dangerous impact on health. In 2016 it was estimated that China and India together contributed to at least 20 lakh deaths attributed to PM 2.5. If one lives in a city or in the suburbs, the air that is being breathed is a toxic soup of PM 2.5, sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). And while precious little can be done about the air outdoors, the quality of air indoors can be purified.

Another study, in nine European cities way back in 2013 revealed that for every increase of 10 microgram per cubic metre, lung cancer rate increased by 36%. PM 10, the other particulate matter that was the subject of a National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) study is slightly less harmful but its incidence in Kolkata and Delhi is alarmingly high.

Yet another recent joint study by Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology and National Centre for Atmospheric Research, revealed that citizens were paying a price with more than “a couple of years” as it had led to a reduction of 6.1 years in Bengal’s average life expectancy. The reduced average life expectancy was only second at 6.4 to Delhi’s which stood at 6.4 years.

Diseases like Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder, asthma, bronchitis and respiratory allergies, were a direct fallout of high levels of PM 2.5 which could enter human lungs and bloodstream easily due to their small size. Reports of chronic bronchitis and emphysema or the lung turning inelastic have become quite common in both Kolkata and Delhi. These are the two most common forms of COPD and the number of patients has been increasing sharply. “The continual high levels of pollution which have stayed in the severe category almost every day this winter contributed directly to the dip in life expectancy that the above study of IITM revealed.” Obviously, a constant onslaught of carcinogenic gases is putting the tract under severe stress and most people are, in some way or the other, suffering from allergic cough, sneezing, wheezing and shortness of breath.

Importantly, health scientists opine that air pollution is now set to affect weather patterns, including monsoon, which provides the critical rainfall that has kept South Asian civilisation going for thousands of years. Pollution from India even reaches the Hindu Kush Himalayas, causing smog and environmental damage in the fragile region. The problem, of course, is not just India’s, but Bangladesh’s capital city, Dhaka, is also struggling to deal with the menace.

India’s dangerous toxic air has been linked to over 2 million premature deaths, accounting for 25 per cent of the global deaths due to air pollution. Of this, around 110,000 are children. Poor air quality is often regarded as an urban problem to be addressed by urban authorities. However, the physical and chemical features of PM 2.5 and ozone add an important spatial challenge to managing air quality as these can remain in the atmosphere for weeks and be transported over hundreds of kms.

The problem is perhaps more than serious and immediate and stringent action is called for by both Central and State governments – not just in policy formulation but in a strong implementation process as well — to save the cities and the health of the population. With a new government in place and a capable Union Environment Minister, hope the adage ‘a stitch  in time will save nine’ is adhered to and the environment gets a makeover.—INFA



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