Air pollution crisis: Can India ape China in tackling the problem?
Seven of the top 10 most polluted cities on the list and 15 of the top 20 and 25 of the top 50 are in India.
When she was all of three months old, in late 2014, she developed a blocked nose and difficulty in breathing. So she was prescribed a nebuliser, a device that helps a patient inhale a medicated mist to ease breathing difficulties. After that, every second month she had to be rushed to the doctor for recurring cold and bouts of coughing.
This continued for the first three years of her life. Vishal’s condition wasn’t genetic, it was entirely caused by her environment — the highly unsafe air of Ghaziabad. Here, construction debris combines with vehicular and factory emissions as well as smoke from farm fires in neighbouring states to brew the deadly cocktail that sends infants and children to emergency rooms in droves, and causes severe pulmonary, nervous and cardiac disorders in adults. She spent sleepless nights and her parents grew increasingly worried that things could get much worse for Vishal.
In December 2017, they decided to leave Ghaziabad, a suburb of New Delhi and part of the National Capital Region (NCR), now the world’s most polluted metropolis. They weighed different options and settled on the cooler, cleaner environs of Dehradun. “Touch wood, she has not had any problems here. The air is fabulous here,” says Vanita Arora, her relieved mother.
They try to keep Vishal away from NCR, especially in winter. While Arora’s husband, who works for a news website, divides his time between Ghaziabad and Dehradun, she looks for freelance assignments designing coffee-table books and such. Relocating has not been easy. They have no family in Dehradun and work has not been easy to come by for Arora. But they do not regret the decision. “We are not the only ones to have moved to Dehradun. In our housing society, there are at least a couple of families who left Gurgaon for the same reason,” says 37-year-old Arora.
Gurgaon, Ghaziabad and Faridabad — all part of NCR — were named the world’s most polluted cities in 2018, in a recent report by IQAir AirVisual, a data provider. The cities had an average annual PM 2.5 concentration of around 130 micrograms per cubic metre (g/m³), 13 times the World Health Organization (WHO) standard of 10 g/m³ and more than three times the safe limit (40 g/m³) prescribed by the Indian government. PM 2.5 is particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less that can go deep into the respiratory system and even enter the bloodstream. A human hair, in comparison, has a diameter of 60 microns.
Seven of the top 10 most polluted cities on the list and 15 of the top 20 — including New Delhi — and 25 of the top 50 are in India. India was the world’s third most polluted country, after its neighbours Bangladesh and Pakistan. This is hardly shocking, as such lists have now become an annual event.
Children like Vishal particularly bear the brunt of pollution. Anjali Raina, a paediatrician in Delhi, says in the mid-1980s, when she started her career, she got one or two cases of bronchitis every year. Now, every second child that comes to her suffers from the condition.
Any which way you look at it, India has an alarming air pollution problem. And yet, incredibly, there is little conversation around it, except for winter months in Delhi-NCR, when pollution shoots through the roof, or for a brief period after the release of such reports. Governments — both in states and at the Centre — do not see it for the public health crisis it has become, putting millions at risk, especially vulnerable sections like the poor, kids and the elderly.
India has to tackle pollution aggressively and immediately, just like China did when faced with a similar problem in 2013. “The lesson from China is the scale and stringency of action,” says Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of research at the Centre for Science for Environment, a New Delhi-based think tank.
China is the world’s largest polluter, followed by the US and India. China and India are committed to the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which aims to contain global surface temperature rise to 2 degree Celsius by 2100 above pre-industrial levels and even attempt to limit it further to 1.5 degree Celsius. The US in June 2017 pulled out of the agreement.
January 2013 was a month of reckoning for the Chinese government. Beijing was enveloped in a thick, apocalyptic smog. The concentration of PM 2.5 touched 755 micrograms per cubic metre (g/m³) — 30 times higher than the WHO-prescribed daily average limit of 25 g/m³. This forced the government to announce a $277-billion (a tenth of the current Indian economy) plan to cut pollution across the country by the end of 2017. The capital city was expected to reduce average annual PM 2.5 concentration by a third and the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area by a quarter and so on.
To achieve these targets, new coal-fired plants around Beijing and some other cities were banned and existing ones were asked to cut emissions. Iron and steel plants were asked to limit production and some cities were made to take high-emission vehicles off the roads. The plan had its desired effect. In 2017, PM 2.5 concentration in Beijing, which had set aside another $120 billion to tackle pollution, was below 60 g/m³ as targeted, a decline of 32% from 2013, according to a study by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. In the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area, the reduction was 36%, and in Shanghai and Guangzhou, 41% and 38%, respectively. China is also experimenting with giant public air cleaners, one 23-ft high and another nine times as tall.
It took the US three times as long to achieve similar reductions after the Clean Air Act was enacted in 1970. The UK in 1956 enacted the Clean Air Act as a response to the Great Smog of 1952 in London. India has also had an air pollution law since 1981, but that hasn’t helped avoid the situation we find ourselves in today. Two months back, the Narendra Modi government unveiled its National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), which wants to cut PM 2.5 and PM 10 concentrations by 20-30% by 2024 from 2017 levels. More than a hundred cities will be asked to submit a plan. The government also said the programme might be extended after a mid-term review. Does this mean deadlines will be extended? If so, that does not reflect the kind of remedial urgency the current situation demands.
Santosh Harish, a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, a think tank, does not find much that is new in NCAP. “It is a compilation of existing air pollution control norms. It applies Delhi’s template to 101 cities,” he says, referring to the action plan that involves, among other things, setting up more monitoring stations, checking vehicle emissions, improving public transport and having a contingency plan for high-pollution days. “It is a laundry list of measures and they are behind schedule,” notes Harish.
Questions sent to Harsh Vardhan, the Union environment minister, remained unanswered at the time of going to print. There have been experiments by the Delhi government to tackle pollution, like its 2016 decision to allow private vehicles to ply on alternate days, depending on whether their licence plates ended in an odd or even number. The Centre’s plan to provide liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) connections to homes using solid fuels, which accounted for a quarter of air pollution in 2015, will make a serious dent in indoor pollution. Between the scheme’s launch in May 2016 and January 2019, 62 million new LPG connections were given.
But a lot of the key efforts have been driven by the judiciary, including the ban on petrol vehicles older than 15 years and diesel vehicles older than 10 years in NCR. Harish and Roychowdhury stress on the importance of coming up with plans for regions, instead of for just individual cities, like what China has done. “Pollution doesn’t recognise state boundaries. It’s not just a Delhi problem. We need a pan-India, and not a one-state, solution,” says Raghav Chadha, spokesperson for the Aam Aadmi Party, which runs the state government in Delhi.
The gravity of the problem becomes evident when you look at its impact on human health. According to the India State-Level Disease Burden Initiative, air pollution caused 1.15 million premature deaths in 2017, or one in every eight deaths. “Till a couple of years ago, there were questions about whether pollution is such a big issue and whether it is causing so much damage. We have to base our actions on robust evidence, and fortunately, for air pollution we do have data,” says Lalit Dandona, director of the initiative.
Air pollution could cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, stroke, heart disease and acute lower respiratory infection, among others. Air pollution is the third biggest risk factor for disease and disability in India, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017. It ranks above high blood pressure and tobacco use. Ashish Jain, a pulmonologist at New Delhi’s Max Hospital, says he has observed a rise in the number of people developing asthma over the past few years, “and lung function deteriorating faster in COPD patients than in a healthier environment.”
There is a tendency in India to ignore an issue till it becomes grave, and air pollution runs that risk. “Environmental issues do not have a space in political agenda,” says Chandra Bhushan Pandey, a Lucknow-based environmental activist and member of BJP, which is in power both in Uttar Pradesh and at the Centre. Sure enough, this election season, air pollution doesn’t seem to be on the agenda of any political party so far.
It is not as if India hasn’t taken steps for a cleaner future. The share of renewable energy in installed power capacity has more than doubled in 10 years to a fifth, but this has come at the cost of large hydel capacity and nuclear power, and not coal- and gas-fired power plants whose share has remained constant at two-thirds. The government wants the share of renewables to rise to 40% by 2030. Moreover, from 2020, only vehicles conforming to a more stringent emission standard can be sold. But these are clearly not enough. While India cannot ape China’s pace and rigidity in pollution control, it needs to demonstrate resolve and leadership in taming this silent killer.