The corona lockdown in India has had many deleterious effects on society which suddenly finds itself coming to a grinding halt. But the one positive effect it has had is on the environment which has found a new awakening. Clear blue skies, birds chirping sonorously and bright sunshine are testimony to this.
Within a week of the lockdown, the air quality index (AQI) showed a drastic improvement across the country. Certain areas in Delhi-NCR climbed to “green” category, indicating good air quality—a rare feature during the spring months. Compare this to a week before the lockdown—then the AQI in Delhi ranged from moderately polluted to the poor category.
Typically, the Central Pollution Control Board categorises AQI under 50 as good; 51-100, satisfactory; 101-200, moderately polluted; 201-300, poor; 301-400, very poor and 401-500, severe.
An analysis done by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) showed a dramatic declining trend in daily peak-hour pollution in six major cities (Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai). Air with a concentration of PM 2.5 and PM 10 fell by 60 percent in several cities after the lockdown. Hourly NO2 levels associated with vehicles dropped more sharply. Hourly PM 2.5 levels associated with other sources of pollution also reduced.
It is well-established that vehicles are a major contributor to air pollution. As employers were forced to provide the option of “work from home” and almost all vehicles were pulled off the roads, the effect on the air was evident. “Overall, air pollution levels dropped sharply after the lockdown because vehicles, factories and construction stopped. Of course, we don’t want this kind of emergency to bring this change,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, Executive Director, Research and Advocacy and head of the Clean Air Campaign at CSE. “This crisis has proved that if a health risk perception can provoke an emergency response, it can galvanise far-reaching changes. Collective community action during this pandemic has forced us to reinvent solutions to reduce our vulnerability to toxic risk.”
Over the years, research has shown that air pollution is one of the biggest causes of deaths across the globe. According to WHO, an estimated 4.2 million deaths occur annually due to bad ambient air quality, globally. Of the 30 most polluted cities in the world, 22 are in India. This puts a large section of the Indian population at risk.
Being exposed to poor air quality for a long duration also increases the risk of death from diseases like Covid-19 and SARS. The European Public Health Alliance warned that there is a link between deaths due to Covid-19 of patients with illnesses linked to air pollution. Doctors had found that the risk of death among SARS patients exposed to moderate air pollution was 84 percent higher compared to patients exposed to low air pollution.
Despite these numbers and multiple warnings by researchers, public perception of poor air quality is low. With the global lockdown, companies are forced to change the ways they operate. As governments emphasise social distancing as the best precaution, along with periodic washing of hands, the world adjusts to new ways of functioning. Schools and colleges have taken education online and so have big grocery outlets. Fitness regimes move into people’s living rooms and chatting with friends is through social media and online apps.
Can this crisis-induced change give long-term solutions for air pollution? Roychowdhury said: “If we can make systemic changes to institutionalise some of the emergency responses and maximise the potential of the digital world to alter the workplace, it can work in the environment sphere too. We can scale up public transport options to reduce vehicles, roll out electric mobility to move towards zero emissions and ensure zero tolerance for non-compliance with emission control regulations and standards. Only then can we see a different post-pandemic period.”
Ravi Kumar, a senior executive at Anil Agarwal Environmental Training Institute, foresees a change in operations after the lockdown is over. “Post- pandemic, we are expecting many changes in the way companies and businesses operate. We cannot entirely gauge what these will be or at what scale, but change will definitely be seen,” he said. “We will be putting systems and processes in place, ensure that lack of physical presence in designated spaces does not hinder operations and offer online courses.”
The coronavirus pandemic has definitely made us realise how quickly we must adapt to the new normal and how we can be more productive using technology, said Gaurav Singh, Regional Head, No Brokers Technology Solutions, a software firm. “As a service provider, we have to ensure that we remain competitive. We can function effectively even if we deviate from the way we used to operate. We will design our systems to build on this learning,” he said.
When asked if the reduced air pollution would influence his decision, he said: “That is a bonus as it also leads to reduced transport bills. The management has made a note of the benefits of work from home and is willing to consider it in future.”
Rijit Sengupta, CEO at Centre for Responsible Business, remembers how a few months back in Davos, where rich business leaders were hosted by the World Economic Forum, a manifesto was released underscoring the importance of “Business with Purpose”. “As businesses and society pass through these difficult times, we must reflect on how to design and promote businesses with a purpose in India. If there is one time when we can begin some thinking and dialogue on this subject, it is now,” he added.
There are concerns that in the post-pandemic period, it will be business as usual and pollution will go out of control once again. But the air pollution crisis that kills 1.2 million Indians and makes many more ill requires a similar emergency response and public support for strong action. “It is important to deepen awareness and public understanding of this connection and the overall health risk associated with air pollution. We need hard action for this,” said Roychowdhury.
Lead picture: UNI