WHO’s survey of 1600 world cities concluded that New Delhi has the worst air pollution of any major city in the world. Air pollution in India is estimated to kill nearly 1.5 million people every year; it is the fifth largest killer in India . Is there any one listening ?

The day Arvind Kejriwal, leader of Aam Aadmi Party (which means Common Man’s Party) took over as Chief Minister of New Delhi having won the election with mega-mandate in February 2015, he was incessantly coughing while delivering his victory speech.

That explains New Delhi’s branding as ‘world’s capital of air pollution’. The election campaign that preceded the victory speech by Kejriwal was flooded with the heaps of promises starting from free-electricity and free-water, corruption-free Delhi. However, there was no time targeted action promised of ‘pollution-free’ New Delhi.

Kejriwal, however, has a solution, though a personal one. He regularly treats his cough by camping in famous resort far away from Delhi, in Bengaluru for detoxification. Unfortunately aim aadmi cannot enjoy such treatment. Neither Delhi government offers any subsidized detoxification treatment to aam aadmi.

Rampant Air Pollution

The air pollution has become rampant in Delhi even before 2015. It has also spread in other cities in India. The Air Quality Index (AQI), which is calculated by observing number of harmful substances in the air, including the important constituent of Particulate Matter (PM) remain times 5 to 10 times the safe level. In winter these levels remain even 20 times higher. PM 2.5(extremely small size particles of 2.5 micron) rush deep into human lungs and get absorbed in the human body through the blood. Many of the weaker sections of the society, poor, pregnant women, children and senior citizens run a high risk of ailments such as asthma, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, birth defects and, quite often, early death. If left on its own, air pollution has potential to weaken the whole young generation on which India has pinned its hope of prosperity.

Severity at global scale

In February 2015 WHO’s survey of 1600 world cities concluded that New Delhi has the worst air pollution of any major city in the world. Air pollution in India is estimated to kill nearly 1.5 million people every year; it is the fifth largest killer in India. India has the world’s highest death rate from chronic respiratory diseases and asthma, according to the WHO.

The study by Lancet Planetary Health, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Indian government and the Indian Council of Medical Research and released by in Dec 2018 stated that more than 51 percent of the 1.24 million people who died in India in 2017 because of air pollution were younger than 70. That shows that more and more young population is put in the risk and Indian life expectancy is impacted.

Latest WHO report stated , after the measurement of the levels of fine particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) from more than 4,300 cities in 108 countries, that out of 20 most polluted cities in the world, 14 are in India.

The Sources

The severity of air pollution is due to the development path chosen by the present humanity. That development model is built on the indiscriminate and unsustainable use ( mainly by burning) of fossil fuel- coal, oil and natural gas.

Air pollution and the climate change are therefore two sides of the same coin. This in reality is sort of good news , because action on climate change would also be the action against air pollution.

Accelerated urbanisation gives rise to the local situation where large number of fossil fuel users are concentrated in the limited area of the city. About 34% of India’s population of 1.35 billion currently lives in urban areas. By 2030, 40-50 percent of the population would be urban ( in the cities) .

As per India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences the sources of air pollutions vary from cities to cities. On average, of PM2.5 air pollution in Delhi to vehicular emissions, 21.5% is attributed to the dust and 18% to industries including construction sites and rest to open burning of agri-residue, which is only seasonal. Illegal practice of open fires to burn waste, open bricks-kilns and cooking with a bio mass using inefficient smoky chulhas are the rest of the contributors.

Cities as targets for addressing air pollution

Air pollution, today, is considered the single largest environment-related health risk, as per the reports of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and World Health Organization (WHO). Approximately 7 million people die every year prematurely from illnesses attributable to household–indoor-and outdoor air pollution. This figure is more than double the combined total of HIV/AIDS and Diarrhea -related premature deaths, as per UNEP. The WHO data that nine out of 10 people in the world breathe air containing high levels of pollutants is indeed alarming.

Government’s strategy, therefore to select the cities which are
conglomerate of milling population, to control and abate the pollution is right one. However, when I read the reports like ‘ Clean Air project in Pune to start by August 2019’, I get a feeling that we are trying to solve the problem by using the same technique that created the problem in the first place. Why the project did not start yesterday, and if not, why not today or tomorrow? Why August? Is air pollution not the existential threat to us and our next Gen? Is not we all in the huge ICU? Is it not super-urgent?

Two lessons from two ends -France and China.

France

Both France and China have taken the air pollution in the cities as the top priority issue.
Paris has the most modern ‘early warning’ and ‘early response’ system for air pollution. Its city council considers that action would impact the health as well as wealth i.e. revenue from tourism. Monitoring and public display of the air quality index on the roads trigger alarms all over the city even at short notice and for short duration of high level of air pollution. City Council many times takes hard decisions like making public transport free and bringing down the use of cars. Digital technology that includes apps for traffic congestion, CCTV cameras to control the speeds is employed extensively.

City Council of Paris has also created measures to counter air pollution, including direct cash subsidies to users of CNG vehicles, and electric/ hybrid cars, to cyclists, monetary concessions for users of public transports, free parking for cars using CNG, ban on use of diesel. President Marcon has declared that no new fossil fuel cars would be sold in France after 2040. He also negotiating the deals with auto manufacturers to reduce CO2 emissions by getting rid of polluting cars and increasing the French buying power. By changing cars, citizens cut their emissions and car manufacturers get a sell.

China

This year UNEP produced the report on two decades of the air pollution control in Beijing that provides the lessons for other cities like Pune.

The air pollution has come down by 33 percent in terms of PM 2.5, along with other constituents like ground level ozone, CO and nitrous oxides. Some of the actions that were taken on war footing is to

  • Closing  down the coal fired power plants and coal fired boilers, in and around Beijing.
  • Shifting or close down polluting industries
  • Enhancing the fuel efficiency of  the cars,
  • Providing government incentives for electrical two wheelers, bicycles and four wheelers
  • Making public transport system more efficient and far reaching.
  • Heavy investment  in renewables, electric vehicles,
  • Extensive capacity building of the bureaucrats, private sectors and citizens.
  • Emergency use of odd/even number plates on roads and kits strict implementation.
  • Use of digital technologies , IoT and Big Data to measure and monitor the systems and locate the defaulters for penalties .

Indian efforts

India since 2015 has also  made great strides and hard work in reducing air pollution, which has been acclaimed by the United Nations.

  • Under Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana 70  million gas connections have been released there by reducing use of inefficient bio mass burning.
  • Ambitious plan of setting up 175 GW ( equivalent of 350 coal fired plants of 500 MW each) of solar energy for electricity and hot water is on the track.
  • IITM ( Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology ) Pune has launched an app called SAFAR, to provide on-line information on pollution level on real time basis in the cities. It provides what citizens should do to take care of the health as well as to reduce the air pollution.

The remaining challenges

The lessons from other countries and cities need to be internalised in setting and implementing the systems to reduce the air pollution and take health precautions.

Participation of the students and faculties of the universities in deploying the digital technologies to monitor the air Pollution in campus would be key to ensure the sustainability of the systems.

2019 World Environment Day on 5th June will be hosted in China by UNEP. The theme this year is Air Pollution. China would show case its success.

In Pune, MIT- World Peace University would launch air pollution measurement in its Kothrud campus as part of its Project of Smart Campus Cloud Network that was launched on 5th June 2017. The project would use Internet of Things , so that the students and faculty would be able to measure the pollution on-line and real time basis. If all the universities and colleges start such programme it would contribute to government’s plan to control air pollution in the four cities in Maharashtra. END

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