- This article explains how cities with worse air than Delhi fixed the problem and what needs to be done by India to ensure clean air.
Impact of Air Pollution
- Health impact: Air pollution is the fifth-largest cause of death in India — it led to premature deaths of 1.6 million Indians in 2019.
- Despite their limited contribution to emissions that lead to severe air days across the country, rural Indians make up two-thirds of the air pollution-led premature deaths.
- Economic impact: Poor air amounts to about Rs 7 lakh crore of economic loss annually.
Why tackling air pollution remains a challenge?
- Air pollution is a systems problem that cuts across state and regional boundaries, spanning rural and urban areas.
- Associated with multiple sources of emissions and is linked to interconnected economic factors and interests.
- India’s responses to the crisis are often fragmented, addressing symptoms and not root causes.
- For example, a few smog towers, some dust suppression by spraying roads, knee-jerk construction bans, haphazard odd-even restrictions on traffic, and shutting down schools cannot address the problem of Air pollution.
What needs to be done?
- Address root causes across a fractured system of governance.
- There is a need to acknowledge that this is a human-induced problem.
- Realize that the most vulnerable — like children and older people, rural communities, and the urban poor have contributed the least to the problem.
- Learn lessons from other countries that have successfully tackled this challenge, and act on evidence-based options to address it.
- Focus on changing our production, transportation, consumption and waste management systems to address the challenge.
- For instance, apart from Beijing, Mexico City, and even London, Delhi’s poor air also improved following a fuel switch from diesel to CNG in public transport in the 2000s.
Coordinated interventions needed
- An integrated approach to limit emissions and reduce exposure across the value chain from production to consumption to recycling of goods and delivery of services is needed.
- This means limiting emissions from coal-fired power plants, polluting industries and brick kilns as well as limiting wood, cow dung and garbage burning for cooking.
- Also there is a need to limit crop residue burning by implementing known solutions like shifting to less water-intensive crops, altering irrigation arrangements, timing, harvesting, baling practices and building a wider year-round market for straw.
- Increase the availability of affordable green urban public transport that enables universal last-mile connectivity like in Singapore, Hong Kong etc., This can be achieved through
- Shifting metro systems in India to renewable power.
- Expanding metro ridership, and improving and electrifying viable bus services.
- There is a need for widespread electrification of buildings, vehicles and production processes, where possible.
- Fuel switching to renewables can both curb pollution and meet climate goals.
- Adopt a regional or airshed approach to address pollution sources and impacts across an entire region rather than individual cities and towns.
- This approach was successfully deployed in Los Angeles, Mexico City and many mega-urban regions in China.
- End-to-end construction and waste management is pivotal to reducing tonnes of dust and waste released in the air and water bodies.
- Recycling concrete, brick and stone from existing buildings will also limit the mining of our rivers.
- Enabling strong legislation and enforcement of regulations are necessary throughout the year, not just around Diwali.
- There must be wide-scale citizen mobilization for awareness and education, which can influence lifestyle choices over decades.
- The precedent set by the Fifteenth Finance Commission by investing in health and solid waste management should extend to financing of climate change and air pollution reduction interventions in the Sixteenth Finance Commission.
- There is a need to deploy the best science and technology available to establish real-time monitoring systems that can even provide advanced weekly forecasts.
- Expanding and improving the System of Air Quality Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) network can help us make rational decisions on alerts, interventions and investments.
- Instead of piecemeal approaches, with coordinated actions, we can address not only air pollution but also our urban climate and health goals together.