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Above: Photo by Anil Shakya

The government has acknowledged the need to set targets and show the resolve to reduce particulate matter, but unless there is a compliant and credible strategy, this is likely to stay on paper only

~By Ramesh Menon

India has set a target to reduce particulate matter (PM) by 30 percent by 2024, a ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) official said last week. This assertion was made at the World Health Organisation summit on air pollution in Geneva where India’s ministers and senior bureaucrats were conspicuous by their absence. It is learnt that WHO had extended invitations to three Union ministers, including Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan, but it is not known if the unveiling of the Sardar Patel statue by the prime minister is what kept them away.

The conference was held in the backdrop of the severe air pollution proving to be a grave concern for health, especially for children in several countries, including in India. For more than a week now, millions of residents in the National Capital Region and other major north Indian cities have been waking up every morning to a blanket of thick smog, the kind that makes the strongest of men stay indoors. There was poison in the air as smoke mixed with fog caused by firecrackers, stubble burning by farmers, garbage set on fire and vehicular pollution floated over the city.  Though influential policy strategists and lawmakers live in Delhi, they could do little as pollution levels crossed 10 times the safe limit and hospitals across the city reported incidents of even the young being rushed in with respiratory complaints.

A recent study by the World Health Organisation has found that out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, 14 are in India.  Pollution-related problems in Indian cities are nothing new as is the absence of  political will to tackle it. Without fail, around this time of the year, as temperatures fall and stubble burning begins in states around NCR, air quality in the capital goes from bad to worse. As the media goes to town highlighting the dangers ahead, the government dishes out the mandatory promises of a clean-up.

The question is: Will India be able to live up to its promise to reduce particulate matter by 30 percent by 2024? As pollution levels in Indian cities like the capital shoot up to unmanageable levels, how realistic is this? More and more Indian cities are grappling helplessly with pollution-related problems which include deteriorating health and there does not seem to be an easy solution to get around it or even reduce it to manageable and permitted levels. Anumita Roy Chowdhury, air pollution expert at the Centre for Science and Environment who is on various government bodies trying to find solutions to the vexed problem of pollution, told India Legal: “The government has acknowledged that they need to set targets with their resolve to reduce particulate matter. But, targets will not work unless there is a compliant strategy. Where is the strategy to make the city government liable and accountable to meet cleaner standards? Targets have to be such that they can be verifiable. Penal action should follow if standards are not met, like withdrawal of funds. Beijing set a target in 2012 to reduce 25 percent of pollution by 2017. In five years, they have reduced it and demonstrated the will to do it. Delhi will have to reduce 74 percent of the pollution level it has in comparison to reach tolerable levels. So a lot needs to be done. Our action plan has to reflect the seriousness of the problem.”

The meeting in Geneva was called as increasingly air pollution was proving to be a grave concern for health. It was seriously affecting children in numerous countries which included India. Ironically, the ministry had challenged global research on pollution in one of its reports in April saying that indigenous studies were required to establish the link between air pollution and mortality. The ministry in a presentation at the summit said that it was committed to “bring PM10 and PM2.5 levels down in definite percentage terms by 2024”. This will pertain to 102 cities in India like Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Ghaziabad, Noida, Kolkata, Chandigarh, Bengaluru, Bhopal, Jaipur, Surat, Bhubaneswar, Cuttack, Guwahati, Visakhapatnam and others.

Under the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), the central government plans to unfurl a comprehensive programme in 102 cities to reduce pollution by about 70 to 80 percent in the next 10 years. The NCAP may take financial aid from the World Bank to kick off the programme in the coming months.

Sumit Sharma, air pollution expert at The Energy and Resources Institute, told India Legal: “An overall national level target of 30 percent reduction in PM2.5 and PM10 by 2024 is being proposed for cities with high pollution levels. This may look achievable, but as cities are growing at a very fast rate, significant measures will be required. It will need central level policies of enhanced LPG penetration, introduction of BS-VI standards from 2020 and implementation of new power and industrial sector norms if there has to be substantial reduction in pollution. These strategies will not only reduce the direct primary particulate matter emissions but will also reduce emissions from industries. Other than these, control over agricultural burning and transport emissions from vehicles will be crucial. Sustainable management of agricultural residues, strengthening of inspection and maintenance systems and fleet modernisation will be required for long term improvement of air quality in India. The key here is the effective and timely enforcement of these strategies.”

Meanwhile, the ministry of environment, forests and climate change is at present working on a three-year National Environmental Health Profile Project that is attempting to evaluate the extent of health effects caused due to environmental exposure. The study that it will carry out will be spread across 20 cities spread out in four zones. Each zone will have five cities. A city where the pollution levels are not very high will be taken as a referral city, and cities battling heavy pollution will be taken as test cities where the three-year study would be done.  It will rope in leading medical institutions like the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

In the north, Delhi, Ludhiana, Kanpur and Raipur will be test cities while Guwahati will be the referral city. Similarly, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Visakhapatnam and Chennai will be test cities while Thiruvananthapuram will be the referral city in the south. In the west, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Jaipur, Bhopal will be the test cities with Panaji as the referral city. In the east, Patna, Kolkata, and two other cities will be test cities, while Shillong will be the referral city. Once done, this might throw up interesting results that may help strategists to come up with a workable plan.

The exact nature of the study will be laid out sometime in late November. According to Dr TK Joshi, senior adviser on environmental health at the ministry of environment and forests, principal investigators from the 20 cities will look at met data, health data and particulate matter. The three-year analysis will look at patients admitted for acute diseases at selected hospitals.

A recent study by reputed medical journal Lancet has pointed out that pollution is the largest cause of disease and death in the world. This is three times more than deaths due to HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Indian officials have disputed the figure of 2.5 million deaths in India due to pollution, of which 1.81 were due to air pollution alone. That means 28 percent of the deaths in the world were from India. Other countries that saw large number of deaths due to pollution were China, Pakistan, Bang­ladesh, Russia and Nigeria. Researchers drew from data from the Global Burden of Disease study that had comprehensive estimates on the effects of pollution on health and pinpointed contaminated sites in the world.

According to the WHO Global Ambient Air Quality Database, 2018, 97 percent of cities in low and middle income countries with more than 1,00,000 people do not meet WHO air quality guidelines. However, in high income countries, it is only around 49 percent. As air quality declines, the danger of chronic and acute respiratory diseases which include asthma increases. So does the risk of stroke, heart disease and lung cancer. It is not a pretty picture.

How realistic is it to induce artificial rain in Delhi to reduce pollution and how many times a year is it feasible? The Central Pollution Control Board, IIT-Kanpur, Indian Meteorological Department and Indian Space Research Organisation are getting together to start seeding clouds over Delhi in a desperate effort to cut pollution.

People have a right to breathe fresh and healthy air. But for that to happen, lawmakers and policy wonks need to be proactive round the year on long-term strategies and not, as they do now, work in fits and starts searching for quickfixes.

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