In this season of political storms and landslides, does polluted air stand a chance of grabbing India’s attention? Nah! For days at a stretch now, there are slim chances of dirty air being at the heart of the high-decibel discussion about India’s future.
But consider the evidence. A report released by World Health Organisation (WHO) last week shows that Delhi no longer has the dubious honour of being at the top of the list of cities with the worst air pollution. But the disturbing news is that small-town India is taking a hit. The 10 cities that spewed the most pollutants into our planet’s air include Allahabad, Gwalior, Patna and Raipur. It gets worse — India has 16 of the world’s 30 worst cities with polluted air.
The data comes from comparisons done by WHO of 795 cities in 67 countries for small particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) levels between 2008 and 2013. These include pollutants like sulphates, nitrates and black carbon, which penetrate deep into the lungs and into the cardiovascular system, posing the greatest health risks.
What does this have to do with our future? The short answer: dirty air enhances the risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma. India is already reeling under the burden of lifestyle diseases and air pollution makes it far worse. The elderly are among the worst-affected. But it’s not just them. Young people who breathe highly polluted air day in and day out are also badly hit. So are children. Inhaling polluted air can affect lung capacity, putting one at risk of respiratory diseases later. Needless to say, it also affects productivity.
Delhi’s air woes at least get an occasional hearing as it is India’s capital and whatever happens here makes news. It is also where many activist organisations are based. But the air quality in small town India is also worsening rapidly. Many cities are motorising rapidly, and more vehicles with lower emission standards are hitting the road in small towns. This comes along with low public awareness and thus lack of public pressure.
It’s not just vehicles and bad fuel. There has also been lots of construction activity in smaller towns in recent years. This contributes to dust, that again dirties the air. A survey by the Centre for Science and Environment in 2013 noted the grim situation in several Uttar Pradesh towns. Ghaziabad and Allahabad have emerged as the worst cities in UP in air pollution. On top of that, small towns in India mostly don’t have action plans to clean up their air.
If Delhi’s air quality has improved marginally, it’s due to sustained public pressure which made it hard to ignore. Young people moving around with masks, foreigners in the city openly saying they fear for the health of their children, more emergency visits to hospitals due to respiratory diseases and so on.
Delhi has taken some control measures, and not just the contentious “odd-even” scheme. The city now has higher emission standards for vehicles. The coal-based power plant at Rajghat has been shut. And we are beginning to see higher penalties for burning of trash and enforcement of regulations to control road dust. There are miles to go, but a start has been made. Not so in all other parts of the country.
Early this year, a newspaper report pointed out the alarming situation in Kanpur, one of the most polluted cities. The Kanpur Municipal Corporation’s safai karamcharis burn waste collected from residential areas and shopping areas in those localities instead of taking them to primary collection points. Not just that, residents, too, thought nothing of burning domestic waste on the road. During winter, the city’s poor tossed plastics and tyres in bonfires to warm themselves.
There are flickers of promise — public conversation about these vital issues is starting. India’s media has begun to focus on air pollution, not just in Delhi but across the nation. Top economic journalist T.N. Ninan reminds us in his 2015 book The Turn of the Tortoise: The Challenge and Promise of India’s Future: “India has about the worst index for air quality; the situation of its water — once abundant — is moving steadily from ‘stress’ to ‘scarcity’; its tree cover, vital as a carbon sink and for preserving the natural habitat, is not growing, and some of it is now being sacrificed in order to access mineral and other resources. The soil quality is affected by the unbalanced use of chemical fertiliser and poor-quality pesticides” and so on.
It’s tempting to frame the current scenario as an inevitable tradeoff between economic growth and keeping the environment clean. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Thermal power plants and steel plants exist worldwide, but they don’t poison the air around them this way. Like them, India’s plants too have electrostatic precipitators in their chimneys, designed to trap most pollutants. The difference is that environmental laws in India are so weak and their implementation so lax that nobody bothers to clean those chimneys. A senior official in Chhattisgarh’s Bhilai Steel Plant once said it was cheaper to pay the fine than hire chimney cleaners.
As India is caught up in an ecological crisis playing out in many directions, we increasingly hear that environmental damage and the toll it takes on our health is the price we pay for a growing economy. And weaving this line of argument with the political discourse, it’s being said that the Narendra Modi government was elected to rev up India’s economic growth. So as long as the economy is growing, there is room for nothing but celebrations.
But this is a flawed argument — many cities and countries worldwide have shown that economies can grow without plunging people into acute ill-health. Solutions exist, and there’s no dearth of evidence on what works — cleaner fuel, energy efficient public transport and household gadgets, water-saving taps, strict implementation of environmental regulations.
You don’t have to be an Einstein to understand any of this but you have to have the political commitment to change the palpably unsustainable situation. There will be backlash, resistance. But other places did it — London, Mexico City, California... Why can’t India?...