Polluted India – why can’t we look within?

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The recent WHO report released on May 2, 2018 citing 14 cities in India (including New Delhi, Gwalior, Varanasi, Mumbai and Kanpur) among the 20 most polluted in the world should be a matter of shame for us. On PM (Particular Matter) 2.5, most polluted city in India is Varanasi. Other Indian cities that registered very high levels of PM2.5 are Faridabad, Gaya, Agra, Patna, Muzaffarpur, Srinagar, Gurgaon, Jaipur, Patiala and Jodhpur. Mumbai ranks fourth most polluted mega city in the world. Maharashtra State Government downplayed criticism of the pollution problem, saying that Mumbai’s air quality was “moderate”. According to Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) standards, PM 60 micrograms denotes PM10 and 40 micrograms denotes PM2.5, whereas WHO air quality measurement standards are 20 micrograms for PM10 and 10 micrograms for PM2.5. PM recorded by the WHO for Mumbai stood at PM2.5 and PM10 as 64 and 104 respectively. Why the measurement standards are different is not known but it cannot be denied that the pollution situation is acute.

According to the WHO report, some seven million people die every year from exposure to fine particles of polluted air – almost all in Asia and Africa with quarter of the deaths from lung cancer, strokes and heart diseases on account of air pollution. Major sources of air pollution from PM pollutants and sulphate, nitrate and black carbon that are generated due inefficient use of energy by households, industry, agriculture and transport sectors, and coal-fired power plants, besides other sources like, sand, desert dust, waste burning, crop and stubble burning, construction and deforestation etc. In 2015, a US study had reported some 1.1 million Indians dying due air pollution, approximately one quarter of air pollution deaths worldwide.

In December 2017, the Supreme Court sought the Centre’s response on a petition seeking a series of steps to curb air pollution, including ban on sale, possession and bursting of firecrackers across the country, while the petition had also sought directions for environment-friendly, cleaner fuels and implementation of regulations on dust from construction activities. On January 25, 29018, the SC asked the Centre to look into the problem of air pollution on a nationwide basis and not confine it to Delhi-NCR only, saying reports suggested that cities like Raipur, Patna and Allahabad were more polluted. SC asked the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF) what it proposed to do on the air pollution issue for the rest of the country. It may be recalled that in November, 2017, the Indian Medical Association was forced to declare public health emergency due to heavy toxic smog in Delhi, caused by deadly mixture of vehicular pollution, construction and road dust and stubble burning, advising citizens to stay indoors, and for schools to be shut.

The WHO report does make mention of Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, under which 37 million women living below the poverty line have been provided free LPG connections in last two years for switching to clean household energy. Incidentally, the WHO report points out that the urban quality of Bangladesh is better than India. Some argue that Bangladesh is smaller country compared to India. However, the population density in cities like Dhaka would be as much as abovementioned Indian cities, if not more. In March 2018, the (MoEF) has finalized a Comprehensive Action Plan (CAP) to combat air pollution that included multiple measures including actions to reduce vehicular emissions and controlling dust from construction work. But this CAP is ‘only’ meant for Delhi-NCR. So obviously there a holistic appraisal and road map at the national level is still not defined. How effectively the CAP evolved for Delhi-NCR will be ‘implemented’ is questionable, given that politics gets precedence over everything else, and factors like politico-builders nexus, influence of industrialists and automobiles lobbies and the like.

IIT Kanpur had established main contributors for PM 10 and PM 2.5 in Delhi are trucks and two-three wheelers but in the odd-even schemes in Delhi there were no curbs on two-three wheelers and trucks were permitted by night with ‘green tax’. Surprisingly NGT never questioned Delhi government about this. Delhi generates 10,000 tons of municipal solid waste daily, much of which is eventually burned, adding to pollution in the air; in addition to the already massive pollution added by construction activity.

The Prime Minister has been pushing ‘Swachh Bharat’ Abhiyan. As per IndiaSpend analysis of October 2017, 49.62 million more households in India have toilets (rising from 38.7% in 2014 to 69.04% in 2017) and 250,000 of 649,481 villages had been declared free of open defecation, albeit claims of 150,000 (63%) of these villages were unverified. The World Bank has termed the scheme’s implementation as ‘moderately unsatisfactory’. By itself this is no mean achievement, but it only addresses one part of the looming threat of air pollution as pointed out by the May 2018 WHO report. Yes there are ‘Swachh Bharat Ambassadors’, Swachh Bharat Sarvekshan’, efforts towards public participation, odd photo-ops and the like. But finally the lament is that we Indians don’t have the required culture, without realizing that the very same Indians dare not just jump redlines when abroad because of fear of punishment. Unfortunately, our polity’s vote-bank focus, administration’s unaccountability and corruption prevents imbibing that culture in India.

The judiciary reacts to PILs and complaints and we don’t have a CAP at national level. Unlike any other country, we also have the distinction of having the tallest mountain of smouldering waste in the national capital that even collapses and takes lives. Yet the blind men in authority fail to see it. We could perhaps take a cue from China, which in 2017 met the targets set for Beijing to reduce PM 2.5 concentration to less than 60 micrograms as part of the 2013 action plan. China acknowledges that the biggest polluters are state-owned enterprises and went after them. In our case, it would also include the aforementioned lobbies that India is shy of disciplining. China’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2021) contained new targets to combat environment crisis. What are the plans of India, how comprehensive, and time schedule for its implementation, only future will tell. Only hope is that we should be serious about the issue.

Prakash Katoch is third generation army officer hailing from Himachal Pradesh. He is former Lieutenant General from Special Forces and post retirement has published over 1300 articles on international affairs, geopolitics, military, security, technical and topical issues besides authoring two books. He is active in seminars at both national and international levels.

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