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Insights into Editorial: Call to action: on India’s air pollution crisis

Insights into Editorial: Call to action: on India’s air pollution crisis




A new report from the World Health Organisation highlights not only how widespread air pollution is in urban India, but also how deficient air quality monitoring is.  

Pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and premature death in the world today.

Last year, the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, attributed to air pollution an estimated 6.5 million premature deaths globally, with 1.1 million being from India.


PM 2.5 & PM 10:

PM 10 is the pollution particles having diameters equal to 10 micrometres or lesser (a human hair is about 100 micrometres). These are not trapped in the nose or throat but are drawn deep into the lungs.

PM 2.5 is the small pollution particles having diameters equal or less than 2.5 micrometres in size. These are much harmful than PM 10 and penetrate deep into the respiratory system. These cause the most damage to the body.


Status of Air Pollution in India:

According to Greenpeace India report 2018, Uttar Pradesh is India’s most polluted state. While Varanasi is the sixth most polluted city in the country the state got 13 cities on the list of 30 most polluted cities of India with Ghaziabad sticking to the seventh spot.

The report, which summarised 2016 data for 4,300 cities, ranks 14 Indian cities among the 20 most polluted ones globally. While Delhi comes in at number six, Kanpur, Faridabad, Varanasi, Gaya and Patna are ranked ahead of it, by PM 2.5 levels. And yet, Kanpur, Faridabad and several other pollution-choked cities have only one PM 2.5 monitoring station each, while Delhi has several.

As many as 54% of India’s population lives in regions that do not meet the NAAQS for fine particulate matter, and nearly every Indian (99.5%) lives in a region with air pollution levels above the stricter guidelines of the WHO.

WHO has also ranked outdoor air pollution among the top killers in India.

WHO researchers get around this problem by using alternative data sources such as satellite remote sensing and chemical transport models, along with ground-monitoring stations.

The outcome of this exercise makes it clear that air pollution is not a problem of large metropolises alone, even though they have traditionally been the focus of mitigation efforts. Such wide variations in data quality exist across the world.

While Europe has the most extensive monitoring network, countries in Africa and the Western Pacific region perform poorly. This means data from these regions are of poor quality, and likely underestimates, resulting in an under-count of the disease burden as well. The report puts the global death toll from air pollution at seven million a year, attributable to illnesses such as lung cancer, pneumonia and ischemic heart disease.

In 2016 alone, it says, around 4.2 million people died owing to outdoor air pollution, while 3.8 million people succumbed to dirty cooking fuels such as wood and cow dung. About a third of these deaths occurred in Southeast Asian countries, which include India. Once monitoring improves in these regions, the numbers will likely be revised upwards.

The WHO report had words of praise for India’s Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana scheme, which has provided 37 million women living below the poverty line with LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) connections.



Air Pollution in Rural Areas:

Such schemes will also help cut the indoor air pollution that plagues much of rural India, which is not covered in the WHO analysis. It is important to remember, though, that rural India has problems beyond inefficient cook-stoves. Recently published draft National Clean Air Programme noted, there are currently no air pollution monitoring stations in rural India.

This does not mean outdoor air pollution is not a problem here. Studies have shown that ozone levels are higher in rural areas, as is pollution from insecticide use and crop-burning. The WHO has asked Southeast Asian countries to take swift action to tackle the twin problems of indoor and outdoor pollution. India must realise that its problems are larger than the WHO estimates, and take the call to action seriously.

Major sources of air pollution from particulate matter include inefficient use of energy by households, industry, agriculture and transport sectors, and coal-fired power plants. In some regions, sand and desert dust, waste burning and deforestation are additional sources of air pollution.


Measures to improve air quality:

As suggested by Greenpeace, following measures can be employed to fight air pollution in the country:

  • Improving public transport
  • Limiting the number of polluting vehicles on the road
  • Introducing less polluting fuel (Bharat VI)
  • Strict emission regulations
  • Improved efficiency for thermal power plants and industries
  • Moving from diesel generators to rooftop solar
  • Increased use of clean renewable energy
  • Electric vehicles
  • Removing dust from roads
  • Regulating construction activities
  • Stopping biomass burning, etc.


Need of the Hour

  • Recent government initiatives include the notified National Ambient Air Quality Standards, formulation of Environmental Regulations; setting up of monitoring networks, etc. There is much more which needs to be done. It is not the question of sensitisation; it is the question of making people themselves committed towards maintaining air quality. Ultimately the action at the individual level is what matters.
  • There is a need for more publicity, transparency and online readily available data which will help in reducing air pollution. People should be committed by preventing those activities and processes which cause air pollution.
  • It is not the question of additional research, but the question of implementing what we already know which matters a lot.  
  • India’s fight against air pollution must assume a sense of urgency. Examples around the world, particularly Beijing in the recent past, show that air quality can improve if governments make it a priority.
  • It’s important to, in the first place, have accurate air quality measurements all across our cities to give us a real-time indication of the extent of the problem. Only that, in combination with trying out a variety of measures suggested by experts, can tell us what works and what doesn’t.
  • Planting more trees especially species like Pinus, Juniparus etc.
  • Reduction of use of fossil fuels with replacement by renewable and more cleaner energy sources.
  • Raising awareness about ozone pollution and adequate precautions that need to be taken by people.
  • Periodic monitoring of industrial and vehicular emissions and stringent action on those who fail to comply with emission norms.


All these changes will take time, but are the only ways forward that ensure a cleaner future for all times to come. It is a basic human right to breathe clean air.

Air pollution is an urgent matter that has to be addressed as its redressal is vital for sustainable development. Citizens and government should actively participate in cooperation to increase awareness related to this issue.


Way Forward:

Air pollution needs to be brought under control with urgent and effective action. Non-communicable diseases are the leading cause of deaths globally and in the region, and air pollution contributes significantly to NCDs such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and lung cancer.

Cleaning up the air we breathe will help prevent NCDs, particularly among women and vulnerable groups such as children, those already ill and the elderly.

We need a proactive policy spanning multiple years, and we need to act fast, local and through multiple agencies across multiple political parties to take the long view on air pollution. 

Emphasising the need for a comprehensive plan presenting systemic solutions and reminding governments that a plan can be executed successfully only if all stakeholders work in tandem. This template should also be adapted for other Indian cities that suffer appalling air quality. Air pollution extracts an enormous price in terms of health, particularly of children. Combating it must become a governance priority.

Pragmatic approach should be taken to reduce the pollution levels. Government has been working in right direction by setting goals, signing Paris agreements etc.., to curb this menace but much more needed at grass root level to overcome this situation.

Air pollution does not recognise borders. Improving air quality demands sustained and coordinated government action at all levels.