Last year after Diwali celebrations, the Indian capital of Delhi was covered with such dense smog that the city seemed unlivable. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported the pollutant level to spike 42 times higher than the safe limit.
Air quality in Delhi is considered one of the world’s poorest with people having to wear masks to step out of their homes.
However, deadly air pollution is not restricted to the capital city of India or even to the country’s metros. It is a national problem that is killing 1.2 million Indians every year and costing the economy an estimated 3% of the GDP.
Data gathered by Greenpeace India from state pollution control boards shows that there are virtually no places in India complying with WHO and National Ambient Air Quality (NAAQ) standards, and most cities are critically polluted. Except for a few places in Southern India which complied with NAAQ standards, the entire country is experiencing a public health crisis due to high air pollution levels.
Global Burden of Disease (GBD) has estimated that 3,283 Indians died per day due to outdoor air pollution in India in 2015, making the potential number of deaths due to outdoor air pollution in India in 2015 to 11.98 lakhs.
The Central Pollution Control Board has instituted the National Air Quality Monitoring
Programme (NAMP), under which three air pollutants viz., Sulphur Dioxide (SO2), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) and Particulate Matter size equal to or less than 10 micron (PM10) have been identified for regular monitoring at all the locations.
Data collected from 20 cities of Uttar Pradesh shows PM10 concentrations higher than the annual average in all 20 cities
The annual average air pollution level as prescribed under NAAQS is 60 μg/m3.
The highest pollution level was recorded in Gaziabad at 258 μg/m3, closely followed by Allahabad (250) and Braeli (240). The city that recorded the lowest level was Sonebhadra (132) which was also more than twice the prescribed level.
Annual average of PM10 level in Delhi was 268 in the 2015, making Gaziabad the second most polluted city in the country.
Industrial point sources are the highest contributor (26%) of PM10 in Uttar Pradesh, followed by vehicles (21%).
For NOX emissions, nearly 50% of emissions are attributed to vehicles that occur at ground level, probably making it the most important pollutant.
Cities in Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Haryana show severe pollution levels as well
Faridabad, Haryana is the 5th most polluted city in the country with its PM10 at 240, followed by Jharia (228), Jharkhand and Alwar (227), Rajasthan.
For both Haryana and Jharkhand, PM10 levels have been hazardous all through 2015.
Apart from a few cities in Southern India which complied with NAAQ standards, the entire country is experiencing a public health crisis due to high air pollution levels. Out of the data collected from 168 cities, only 15 are on par with NAAQ standards and apart from one city in Odisha, the remaining 14 cities are located in Southern India.
Comparison of air pollution levels in India to the world’s three major economies
For China, US and the EU, air pollution levels have been declining. However, in India, PM2.5 trend has been steadily increasing for the past 10 years, with 2015 as the worst year on record. Whereas in China, PM2.5 trend has been falling since 2011, with 2015 the best year on record.
Even when compared to the pollution levels in the capitals of these economies, India fares badly. Delhi emits 81 μg/m3 pollutants while the numbers for China, US and UK stand at 81, 12 and 18 respectively.
India also lacks online pollution monitoring systems, with only 39 stations present in 23 cities (as of February 2016) as compared to China’s 1500 stations in 900 cities and towns.
To combat these growing numbers, the Indian government hasn’t set any deadline for meeting the national air quality standards, as compared to the governments of all other economies which have set target years to achieve the standard.
What needs to be done?
India’s air pollution has become a public health and economic crisis. There are increasing numbers of people who die prematurely every year with the increasing pollution levels. Deaths due to air pollution are only a fraction less than the number of deaths caused by tobacco usage.
On the economic front, loss of productivity and the forced closures of schools and industries have already started impacting our economy.
As per the Greenpeace India report on the country’s staggeringly high air pollution levels, India requires a systemic approach to understand pollution levels regularly and take action. The first step in the direction is having a robust monitoring of air quality across the country to know information in real time and using the data to arrive at strategies that would protect public health and reduce pollution levels. The strategies to reduce pollution should become an action plan which is time bound and has targets and penalties. This should include the government providing transparent data to the public on air quality, short term and long term measures to reduce air pollution.
Additionally, as residents of this country and as global citizens, it falls upon each of us to undertake measures to reduce individual air pollution.
Public participation is critical in reducing air pollution. Our choices for electricity and transportation could play a major role in managing pollution levels in many parts of the country.