The rising threat of air pollution in India’s small cities

India is witnessing a rapid construction and infrastructure boom including in its small cities and towns, and authorities are unprepared to step up pollution-tackling efforts. (Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
India is witnessing a rapid construction and infrastructure boom including in its small cities and towns, and authorities are unprepared to step up pollution-tackling efforts. (Hindustan Times via Getty Images)


  • An increasing number of India's small cities and towns, expected to be more livable than the bustling metropolises, are registering air pollution above the safe limit

For northern India, winter is when air quality dominates the headlines for being heavily polluted and unbreathable. In Delhi, pollution reaches nearly 100 times the global safe limit, leading to eye-watering smog and making the city among the most polluted globally.

But while air pollution may come across as a metro-city problem for much of the year, and a north-Indian problem in early winter, data indicates that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

In November, when pre-Diwali rain briefly insulated Delhi’s vulnerable air from the fireworks, some of the most polluted locations in India the morning after the festivities were in Bihar and Odisha, far away from the glitz of metros, data from the Central Pollution Control Board show.

Diwali is just one sample point. In many non-metro cities, the average daily level of the PM2.5 pollutant through the year exceeds the safe zone. (PM2.5 is fine particulate matter that can penetrate the lung barrier and enter the blood system.)

An analysis of the three most populous cities in each state (these are mostly tier-2 and tier-3 cities) confirms this. Out of 54 such cities with available data, 37 have averaged PM2.5 levels above India's acceptable standard of 40 micrograms per cubic metre (μg/m³) in 2023 so far, shows an analysis by Respirer Living Sciences, a climate tech startup that tracks official air quality data. (The World Health Organization uses a stricter safe PM2.5 limit of 5 μg/m³.)

While Delhi and its neighbour Gurugram were the most polluted, next on the list was Bihar's capital city Patna (89 μg/m³). Bhagalpur in Bihar (81.4 μg/m³), Cuttack in Odisha (80 μg/m³), and Dhanbad in Jharkhand (72.1 μg/m³) also registered high average pollution levels.

For 12 cities, including Ludhiana, Coimbatore, Chandigarh, Nagpur, and Amritsar, November 2023 was more polluted in terms of PM2.5 levels than November 2019, Respirer’s analysis shows. Only looking at state capitals, out of the 15 that had data for both those months, seven saw increased PM2.5 levels.

“Megacities have mainly attracted the attention of scientific communities from the point of view of research and data collection, and of government bodies to take control measures," Ranjit Kumar Sinha, an environmentalist who tracks the air quality in Agra, where he is an assistant professor of chemistry at Dayalbagh Educational Institute, told Mint.

“The situation in smaller cities will worsen in the next few years as neither are their residents aware of the grim air quality and its harmful effects, nor has the government paid due attention to them."

The culprits

Open burning of waste and biomass, barren land, road dust, untrammelled construction, rapid urbanization, and rising vehicle density are the major culprits of air pollution in small-town India. Newer pollutants such as oxides of nitrogen are adding to the challenge.

India is witnessing a rapid construction and infrastructure boom, including in smaller towns. Tier-2 cities such as Ahmedabad, Chandigarh, Kochi, Coimbatore and Jaipur are seeing an increase in real estate demand, especially after the pandemic, according to real estate consultancy Anarock Research.

The fallout? A rise in dust pollution, with authorities unprepared to step up pollution-tackling efforts in tandem.

True, the period of crop stubble burning in early winter affects states such as Haryana, Delhi and western Uttar Pradesh acutely. Even otherwise, pollution is a far bigger issue in the entire area occupied by the Indo-Gangetic plains than it is in southern states.

This can largely be attributed to a basin-like topography in the plains that can trap pollutants for an extended period of time, said Abhishek Kar, senior programme lead at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, a public policy think-tank.

Coastal cities in southern states benefit from regular sea breeze that aid in dispersing pollutants, he said.

Health impact

Having a bulk of India exposed to unsafe air quality is a public health threat. Inhaling unhealthy air is linked to a host of diseases such as ischaemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and pneumonia, according to WHO.

New research published in the British Medical Journal earlier this year showed that exposure to PM2.5 increased the risk of developing type-2 diabetes in two different Indian cities.

A 2021 study by the University of Chicago had stated that if Delhi were to reduce its particulate pollution to meet the WHO guideline, an average resident would live nearly 12 years longer. 

In Uttar Pradesh, the gain would be nine years, and in Bihar, eight years.

Phrases such as ‘air emergency’ and ‘toxic hell’ may have been overused to little avail in large cities, but it may be time to raise the alarm elsewhere too.

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