Renowned nineteenth century Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh is said to have remarked, “I never get tired of the blue sky”. Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “I shall cover you with both my hands, and our house-top will be the blue sky…” There are umpteen “blue sky” poems but in reality, nowadays, waking up to see a clear, blue sky is infrequent. A rare confluence of five factors, as the Hindustan Times reported sometime back, can result in a clear morning blue sky – strong winds, rain on the previous day, low dust and emissions, a high ventilation coefficient and bright sunshine.
The cause for serious concern is that death is in the air we breathe. Yes, air pollution continues to be the biggest environmental health risk of our time, with over 99 per cent of people breathing unsafe air. Its regular exposure can lead to stroke, heart and lung diseases, cancer and more. Toxic air reportedly kills 6.7 million people per year besides leaving some 2.4 billion people exposed to dangerous levels of household air pollution. With an aim to raise awareness and to promote actions to improve air quality, the United Nations General Assembly in 2019 designated 7 September as the “International Day of Clean Air for blue skies”. This year’s theme of “Together for Clean Air” focuses on the need for stronger partnerships, increased investment and shared responsibility to overcome air pollution.
Much has happened on the environmental front across the world and more so for India, ever since former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi famously stated at the UN Conference in the early 1970s that poverty is the worst source of pollution. In wake of the 1984 Bhopal Gas tragedy, we now have comprehensive waste management rules covering solid waste, plastic waste, e-waste, bio-medical waste, battery waste, construction and demolition waste, besides hazardous wastes. Extended Producer Responsibility and Polluter Pays Principles have been incorporated in the rules to ensure that producers/manufacturers are responsible for management wastes. Environment protection received a further boost with the setting up of the National Green Tribunal in 2010 to exclusively deal with the environment related litigations so as to protect and enhance the quality of environment.
Well, rules and regulations on one side, how serious is the threat due to air pollution for India? Clampdown on non-essential activities during Covid-19 pandemic led to a significant decline in air pollution levels across India. Not long ago the Air Quality Life Index by the University of Chicago has revealed that particulate pollution reduced average life expectancy in India by 5.3 years in 2021. This figure was much higher for those staying in northern India — Delhiites lose 11.9 years of their life owing to air pollution, for instance — which is home to 50 of the world’s most heavily polluted regions.
More recently, as per the findings of a 2021 study undertaken by global strategic advisory firm Dalberg Advisors in partnership with Clean Air Fund and the Confederation of Indian Industry, clean air is a precondition for businesses to thrive and air pollution costs our businesses $95 billion every year. Notably, India becomes the world's fifth most polluted one in the last decade, having 21 of the world's 30 most polluted cities. India’s workers take 1.3 billion days off work annually as air pollution significantly affects their cognitive and physical performance, as such lowering their on-the-job productivity and thereby decreasing business revenues by up to $24 billion.
Lower air quality also reduces consumers’ willingness to venture out of their homes, leading to lower footfall and ultimately $22 billion less revenue for consumer-facing businesses. The Report cautions that as India’s median age rises from 27 in 2019 to 32 in 2030, vulnerability to air pollution will increase as mortality due to air pollution-linked pulmonary problems and lung cancer will grow at an accelerated pace, as these illnesses tend to affect the elderly harder.
In the latest ongoing efforts to combat environmental pollution, India has been observing the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies as ‘Swachh Vayu Diwas (“Swachh Vayu Neel Gagan”) to raise awareness and facilitate actions to improve air quality under National Clean Air Programme (NCAP). Launched in January 2019, NCAP aims to improve air quality in about 131 cities in the country by reducing Particulate Matter concentrations (PM) by 20-30 percent by 2024 keeping 2017 as the base year for the comparison of concentration. It includes 123 Non-Attainment Cities (NAC) which exceed the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for 5 consecutive years and 42 million plus population cities/urban agglomerations. 34 cities are common in both categories. This includes development of City Action Plans and Micro Action Plans that seeks to address various sources contributing to poor air quality such as vehicles, road dust, construction, industries, thermal power plants, burning of waste, construction and demolition Waste, etc. So far totally Rs 9305.93 crore has been released by the Union Government under NCAP.
Macro level initiatives include controlling vehicular emissions; Bharat Stage VI norms for fuel and vehicles; establishment of metro rails for public transport; development of Expressways; ban on 10-year-old diesel vehicles and 15-year-old vehicles in Delhi NCR; exemption of permit requirement for electric vehicles; stringent emission norms for coal-based thermal power plants; installation of online continuous emission monitoring devices in highly polluting industries; shifting of brick kilns in Delhi-NCR to zig-zag technology; Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) framework for plastic packaging, battery waste, tyre waste and e-waste; and ban on burning of biomass/garbage.
Expansion of air quality monitoring network of manual as well as continuous monitoring stations under programmes such as the National Air Monitoring Programme. The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana has helped many poor households to be freed from the hazard of indoor air pollution.
What has been the impact of NCAP? Recent reports indicate that there has been an overall improvement in PM in 95 cities including 20 cities conforming to the NAAQS in the year 2021-22 compared to 2017. Recently in the first category of million-plus population cities, Indore (Madhya Pradesh) has ranked first, followed by Agra (Uttar Pradesh) and Thane (Maharashtra). In the second category of three to 10 lakh population, Amravati (Maharashtra) has secured the first rank, followed by Moradabad (Uttar Pradesh) and Guntur (Andhra Pradesh). Similarly, for third category of cities with less than three lakh population, Parwanoo (Himachal Pradesh) stood first followed by Kala Amb (Himachal Pradesh) and Angul (Odisha).
A glance into some of the success stories shows that setting up vertical gardens under flyovers not only provides aesthetic appearance but also reduces air pollution which is largely due to dust and emission from motor vehicles run on fossil fuels. Some Cities have introduced battery operated public transport vehicles on specific congested roads to reduce air pollution. Intelligent traffic management system is another initiative in vogue in some Cities which has been found to improve traffic flow thereby reducing avoidable stops and delays at traffic junctions. Such systems not only provide accurate data in real time about traffic conditions but also results in high savings of economic costs.
What can we do at an individual level? Simple steps like switching to green energy like using LED bulbs, adopting public transport instead of private vehicles, saying no to single use plastic, using energy efficient methods to cook food and many more such initiatives can go a long way in keeping a check on air pollution. Together, we can.