Cleaning up India’s air pollution problem

It will require a comprehensive, synergized government approach that is currently lacking


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Anyone who ventured out at night in New Delhi in the past few days would have experienced something akin to one of Victorian London’s infamous pea soupers—the thick fogs caused by air pollution that proved lethal to more than a few of the city’s inhabitants. The onset of the haze blanketing the capital come winter has become an annual ritual. The governmental response, starting with deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia’s meeting to deal with the issue on a “war footing”, has a similar air of the routine.

The levels of particulate matter 10 and 2.5—the most dangerous components of air pollution—spiked severely after Diwali. The former was recorded at eight times the safe limit and the latter at 10 times. This is a no-brainer given the nature of the festival. But the problem, of course, extends far beyond this, and for that matter, beyond the capital. The World Economic Forum (WEF) rates Delhi as having the highest level of air pollution globally among mega-cities—but Gwalior, Allahabad and Raipur all have the dubious distinction of beating it out to rank among the 20 most polluted cities in the world.

The burning of agricultural waste in states like Punjab and Haryana, vehicular emissions, dust from construction sites and factory emissions, among other factors, combine in toxic fashion come the winter months when lower wind speeds and shallow inversion layers prevail across much of the Indo-Gangetic plains. Governments at the central and state levels have responded at various times and in various ways. The evolution of India’s road transport landscape—from the introduction of catalytic converters in cars and unleaded petrol in 1995 and 1998, respectively, to the reduction of sulphur content in diesel in 2000 and the steady progress of successive emission norms—is a case in point. So is the Punjab government’s ban on burning paddy straw and Sisodia’s purported road map that envisions everything from retrofitting crematorium chimneys to vacuum cleaning and sprinkling water on Delhi’s roads.

But these are patchwork efforts, lacking the cohesiveness that is necessary to tackle a multisectoral issue. The first and perhaps most glaring deficiency is the paucity of research to guide policy. There have been a number of studies in Delhi examining the effect of air pollution on respiratory functions and the associated morbidity, including a comprehensive one by the Central Pollution Control Board in 2008. But there has been little focus on the effects on cardiovascular health, an issue that is receiving increasing attention globally.

And as Hem H. Dholakia, Dhiman Bhadra and Amit Garg point out in a 2014 IIM Ahmedabad research paper, Air Pollution in Indian Cities: Short Term Mortality Impacts and Interactions with Temperature, there is a lack of epidemiological evidence in the broader Indian context; the studies they found examined the short-term impacts of air pollution on mortality only for Delhi and Chennai. As WEF rankings on 20 most polluted cities in the world show, the problem is far more widespread than that. From weather conditions to level of development and primary causes of pollution, the specific context of various cities and regions is unique; so too must be research-guided policy decisions. The lack of this leads to knee-jerk moves of dubious benefit such as the Delhi government’s odd-even experiment earlier this year.

The second problem is a lack of political will and imagination to implement proven methods. Congestion charges and restricted parking have been successful from London to Singapore. An emphasis on convenient, easy-to-access public transport has been similarly successful. And as The Hindu pointed out in its editorial on 3 October, there is a puzzling lack of effort to find a synergy between the rising demand for fodder and the agricultural waste that contributes to air pollution via biomass burning.

Thirdly, as in many other areas, there is a lack of adequate enforcement. There are 61 major construction sites in Delhi, for instance, that can be easily monitored, but a host of smaller ones violate most of the existing rules. Industrial emission norms and pollution under control certificates are other stress points where defaulters have it far too easy. China’s example is perhaps not the easiest to follow here given its political structure and the fact that global economic conditions have kick-started a downturn in its rust belt. But even so, Indian administrations could do worse than look to the comprehensive nature of Chinese government efforts to tackle air pollution and emphasis on enforcing regulations.

It took the Great Smog of 1952 bringing about the premature deaths of over 10,000 people in London for the British government to introduce the Clean Air Act 1956 and put an end to the pea soupers. India has it worse; according to the Global Burden of Disease report, outdoor air pollution was responsible for 620,000 deaths in 2010. It’s time, perhaps, for a similar clean-up effort.

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