As the nation’s capital continues to be shrouded in haze and pollution and its air quality worsening, India said at the first Global Air Pollution and Health Conference by the World Health Organisation in Geneva that it would bring down pollution levels, particularly particulate matter pollution, in “definite percentage terms by 2024”. The target, which will be officially announced soon, is expected to be around 30% from current levels.
A reduction of 30% over the next five years would fall short of the target of 35% over the next three years and 50% in five years proposed by environment minister Harsh Vardhan in February this year. While the draft National Clean Air Plan put forward by the central government in mid-April recognised the need for timelines, it did not propose any targets. Explaining the rationale, the environment minister had said that a countrywide target would be both difficult to implement and evaluate. Instead, he explained, a more practical approach would be to set city-wise percentage reduction targets with fixed timelines, which could be set after reviewing the city’s action plan and capacity. Harsh Vardhan had indicated that a general minimum indicative target for five years for the top ten polluted cities in the country would be a good place to make a beginning.
The National Clean Air Plan is yet to be finalised. In the meantime, the Indo-Gangetic Plain continues to experience extremely poor air quality. Over the past fortnight, Delhi and the National Capital Region have experienced high levels of pollution with its air quality oscillating between “very poor” and “severe”. Post-monsoon open burning of crop stubble has, like every past year, contributed to tipping the national capital’s already poor air quality to dangerous levels. The government reports that while efforts to tackle crop burning had yielded results — a 30% reduction over last year — “the overall steps taken by state governments are far from satisfactory.”
The union environment ministry along with the five state governments of Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan have announced an aggressive plan to bring down the current levels of air pollution. This includes a ten-day Clean Air Campaign till November 10 under which as many as 52 joint state and central teams will, with the support of local police, ensure compliance through proactive monitoring. Criminal proceedings will be initiated against repeat offenders. The number of environment marshals, who will flag violations for action, has been increased from 83 to 270. Other measures such as the deployment of mobile air purifiers have also been rolled out. Following a Supreme Court order to impound overage diesel and petrol vehicles, the Delhi government said it de-registered 40 lakh such vehicles and that these would be impounded if found plying on the roads.
The Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority, which is continuously monitoring the situation, has directed suspension of a slew of activities in Delhi and the NCR districts till November 10. These include excavation and civil construction as well as activities of stone crushers and hot mix plants that generate dust pollution. It has directed all industries using coal and biomass as fuel to suspend activities and closure of brick kilns in the NCR till November 10. It had earlier suspended the use of all diesel generators in Delhi. The authority has also warned that if the capital’s poor air quality persisted, it would impose restrictions on the use of private vehicles.
All these are emergency measures geared to bring down the capital’s air quality from its current dangerous levels. Experts have stressed on the need to focus on long-term measures that are required to combat toxic and deadly air pollution. Measures such as a shift to cleaner energy sources, improved public transport and alternative solutions for crop stubble clearing are essential if India is to meet the pollution-reduction target it has proposed.
The promise of a target for pollution reduction comes as the new report by the United Nations revealed that about 4 billion people — 92% of Asia and the Pacific’s population — were exposed to levels of air pollution that pose a significant risk to their health. Besides significant adverse health impacts including respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular ailments and higher incidence of diabetes, poor air quality extracts significant economic costs.
Over the past few years, studies on India relying data from satellites and air-quality-monitoring stations found that more than 90% of the country’s population is exposed to air that fails to meet national ambient air quality standards. The most recent report from the World Health Organisation, which uses the data provided by national governments and regulators, found that India was home to 11 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world.
The UN report, Air Pollution in Asia and the Pacific: Science-based Solutions, released at the WHO Air Pollution and Health Conference, is a comprehensive science-based assessment of air pollution in the region. It details 25 simple and cost-effective policy and technological measures across sectors that if implemented could save millions of lives and ensure that 1 billion people in Asia are breathing clean air by 2030. These efforts include more stringent implementation and compliance of conventional measures, such as emission standards for vehicles, stringent vehicle inspection and maintenance, dust control from construction activities and reduced road dust and increase in green areas. The assessment also focuses on measures to manage agricultural residues, strict enforcement of bans on open burning of crop residues and household waste, improved efficiency of brick kilns, use of low-solvent paints and improved forest management. The final set of policy interventions suggested put development concerns at the core of air quality improvement efforts. These measures included increased use of renewable sources of energy, improved energy efficiency, improved public transport and a waste-management system based on source separation and treatment.
If implemented, these measures would result in a 20% reduction in carbon dioxide and a 45% reduction in methane emissions, preventing up to a third of a degree Celsius in global warming. Resulting reductions in ground-level ozone would reduce crop losses by 45% for maize, rice, soy and wheat combined. “There are three win-win-win triggers to motivate policymakers to take action on pollution: good for job creation, good for people’s health; good for environment,” said UN Environment chief Erik Solheim.
According to the WHO, about 7 million people worldwide die prematurely each year from air pollution-related diseases. Two-thirds of these occur in the Asia-Pacific region. While the Government of India has consistently questioned these figures arguing that these were based on modelling-based statistical estimation, it does acknowledge that air pollution had significant health impacts that had increasingly been becoming a major environmental challenge. It acknowledges the need for effective, consistent and long-term action.
“The most tragic thing about these 7 million deaths is that they are so preventable,” said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “There is something we can do. It will require strong political will, swift action and endurance.”
Improving air quality will require concerted and collective efforts. It will also require political will to take the necessary and sometimes tough measures required to reduce pollution levels. “No person, group, city, country or region can solve the problem alone. We need strong commitments and action from everyone: governments, community leaders, mayors, civil society, the private sector, and individuals,” said Ghebreyesus.