While India’s obsession with economic growth is welcome, it should not come at the cost of the citizens’ right to breathe clean air By Sanjay Singh Gurjar
Dolly, just about seven years old, misses school much too often. And in Delhi’s rocky cold winter months, she fails to make it to her class at least three days in a week. She is more conversant with the corridors of the National Institute of Tuberculosis and Respiratory Diseases in India’s national capital where her middle class family of limited means queues up almost every week. It started two years back when Dolly was found to be out of breath and was complaining of acute throat pain. The doctors at the institute found out that she was suffering from multiple respiratory elements. Severe coughing hurts the little one’s ribs and she is visibly in pain. But neither the child nor her mother is aware that these are the perks that come along with living in the most polluted city in the world.
As one stands near the city’s India Gate roundabout, amazed at the neverending moving line of cars that makes crossing the street on foot a case of divine intervention, it is probably pertinent to turn one’s attention to the urban air quality report released by the World Health Organisation (WHO) early this year. Going by the data on 1,600 cities across 91 countries from 2008 to 2013, Delhi has the most polluted air in the world. Along with Delhi, the top four spots are also held by Indian cities. What’s worse, 13 out of top 20 polluted cities in the world are from India.
Delhi, which recorded 153 micrograms per cubic metre (μg/m3) of small particulate matter known as PM 2.5 (fine particulate matter with 2.5 micrometre or less diameter) has topped the list whereas the safe limit of PM 2.5 by WHO standard stands at 10 (μg/m3). The fine particulate pollutant, which is considered the most dangerous health hazard, is way higher in Delhi as compared to other world cities including Beijing. The concentration of PM 10, coarse particles (fine particulate matter of 10 micrometre in size) in Delhi is 286 (μg/m3), again defying the WHO standards of 20(μg/m ).However, Peshawar 540 (μg/m3) and Rawalpindi 448 (μg/m3) fare worse than Delhi in this parameter. Indian cities with very high PM 10 level includes Gwalior, Raipur and Lucknow.
Apart from size, there are other fundamentally different characteristics these particles have. PM 2.5 particle originates from toxic organic compounds, heavy metal, automobiles, smelting & burning plants and stays in the air longer, travels farther while PM 10 particles originate from dust of factories, crushing and grinding of rocks, soil and stays in the air for short time and travels lesser distance than PM 2.5. Smaller PM 2.5 particles pass through the airways and are more dangerous to health. They result in coughing, aggravation of asthma, lung damage and even premature death in certain individuals, specially children.
Though India has challenged the WHO study, the claims of India’s System of Air Quality Weather-Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) are not substantiated by the evidences from doctors and medical practitioners receiving increased number of patients of respiratory problem. The data available with the National Institute of Tuberculosis and Respiratory Diseases indicates that Out Patient Department (OPD) load from the year 2007-08 to 2012-13 has seen a 48 per cent increase over a span of just six years. “The situation is really alarming. The data of various monitoring agencies may differ as to the exact PM levels but all agree that PM levels are definitely high in our cities, which is a major cause of concern,” says Vivek Chattopadhyay of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), New Delhi. The WHO study comes at a time when India’s industrial growth is limping. The city of Delhi banned the use of diesel in all public vehicles long back in 1999. Seen in this light, what is going wrong with Indian cities becomes more puzzling.
Delhi has seen mammoth expansion in its boundaries in the last couple of decades. This expansion is not only limited to the geographical boundaries but has also led to large-scale construction work and industrialisation in its proximity all over the National Capital Region (NCR) and beyond. Rapid construction and industrialisation have polluted the air. At the same time, the number of cars plying on the roads of Delhi has multiplied manifold. “Growing population and the absence of an effective public transport system finally led to an explosion in the number of privately- owned vehicles. In the absence of an efficient public transport system, people have become habituated to using private vehicles,” says Raj Kumar Singh, Director of Urban Transport, Ministry of Urban Development. However, efforts are on from the government’s side to encourage public transport, he contends. “We have ensured that the new buses we are providing under our schemes should comply with at least BS-III and BS-IV standards of low emission,” adds Singh.
The demand for space on roads, to some extent, is met by construction of more and more flyovers, introduction of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) run vehicles and the Delhi Metro rail network. “However, due to the government’s failure to implement Euro V and Euro VI emission standards, that advantage does not last for long as the number of vehicles on the roads of Delhi have now exceeded the combined count of vehicles of three other metro cities (Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru). PM, that comes from vehicles, is a major source of pollution in urban areas and is more dangerous than any other source of pollution as the sub-micron particles emitted from vehicles gets mixed with the blood too. Our cities do not have any action plan for time-bound reduction of emission, forget the Euro V and Euro VI standards. Our own targets for emission reduction are not defined,” laments Chattopadhyay. Presence of coal-based power plants in the city has only aggravated the crisis. Coal-fired plants come with significant cost to environment and health. They release sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx), particulate matter, carbon mono oxide (CO) and volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere. Chronic exposure to these plants has severe health implications.
Delhi’s affair with pollution is incomplete without mention of the Yamuna. In Hindu mythology, Yamuna is one of the sacred rivers and is the sister of Yama, the God of death. However, the irony is that the river meets a silent death after entering Delhi at Wazirabad. In its 2,525-km journey from the Yamunotri glacier in the upper Garhwal Himalayas to its confluence with the Ganges at Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh (UP), the 22-km stretch of Delhi literally pollutes it beyond redemption. Untreated sewage and discharge of industrial waste at multiple locations contributes to most of it. Unauthorised residential colonies and slums have mushroomed on its banks, the residents of which use the river for washing clothes. There have been instances of open defecation reported as well. With the Yamuna Action Plan to clean the river meeting the same fate as the river itself, there seems to be no immediate hope of revival of the river.
Raipur, the capital city of Chhattisgarh, a state in central India, is also among the top four polluted cities in the world. Rapid rate of industrialisation, the mushrooming of steel and cement factories, increasing vehicular pollution, rampant deforestation and increase in construction activities have all taken their toll on this developing city. The dust around the city has now turned grey and black due to industrial pollution and vehicular emissions. According to a 2008 report of WHO, every fifth child in Chhattisgarh suffered from asthma and the number of patients suffering from respiratory problems were on the rise with every passing year. If this is the cost of industrial growth in this relatively young state, the dubious distinction earned by other cities should not come as any surprise. Gwalior, with 144 (μg/m3) PM 2.5 levels, is almost catching up with Delhi in terms of air pollution. The city is surrounded by industrial and commercial zones which are the major source points of pollution. The story is not different in Patna where the air pollution situation remains a cause of concern for its residents. Amritsar, Jodhpur, Kanpur are the other few names in the extended list of 13 polluted cities of India featuring in the WHO’s top 20 polluted cities across the world.
The effects of air pollution are not limited to just respiratory problems, According to a recent study, about 6,20,000 early deaths in India were due to air pollution-related diseases in 2010. Of these deaths, half were caused by heart diseases triggered by exposure to air pollution that resulted in stroke and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. Lower respiratory tract infections and lung cancer are the other health hazards of air pollution.
In January, 2014, Yale University data put Delhi at a worse position vis-à-vis Beijing in terms of air quality. Beijing has got the bad nomenclature of “Greyjing” among some of its English-speaking residents due to the brownish grey smog that surrounds the city. However, even the latest data of WHO suggests that Beijing probably has better control system in place than Delhi. In March this year, Beijing’s “War Against Pollution” was declared by Chinese premier Le Keqiang to control the damage done by decades of unregulated growth. In the first four months, 652 industrial facilities have been punished for breaching environmental regulation. To enforce this, Beijing has a 500-strong squad of men and women. In April, China amended its 1989 environmental protection law, giving legal backing to the environmental inspectors and promising additional powers to monitor and punish violators.
In Indian cities, the major problem arises from reliance on fossil fuels such as coal-fired plants, dependence on privately-owned vehicles for transport, inefficient use of energy in building and use of bio-mass for cooking and heating. Sources are numerous but most of them are closely linked with economic activities. As the problems are many, the efforts in this direction remain insufficient to meet the challenges posed by pollution. What is much needed in Indian cities is to tighten the emission norms. As the country is lagging behind the global standards of emission levels, the policy focus should be on the 124 cities included in the WHO list. Control on the rising number of new private vehicles through taxation and extension of better public transport facilities can improve the vehicular emissions levels.
“We need a people-friendly approach and not a vehicle-friendly one. Efforts are already on for integration of all modes of transport which is the key to a less-polluted future,” asserts
Singh. The dependence on coal-fired plants should be done away with more investments in generation of renewable energy in the vicinity of the cities. Industry, transport and environmental factors may vary from city to city but there is no denial that the balancing norms are routinely violated. The WHO’s report has sounded the warning bell, with half of the respondents of Delhi, recently surveyed by The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI), saying that air quality in the city has worsened. If no immediate measures come into force, the right to clean air, taken for granted by one and all, will become an impossibility to achieve.
“Two roads diverged in the woods and I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference”, wrote Robert Frost in 1920. It’s possibly time to follow his words literally.