Gas chambers of India

                          According to a recent lancet report, in India 2 people die every minute due to air pollution and for one year that’s more than one million!!. Today it is the fifth leading cause of death in India. In future this number set to increase further owing to rapid and unplanned urbanization. So basically as India grows it’s population will become less and less healthy in our cities.

The severity

                           Last year the WHO assessed 1,622 cities worldwide for PM2.5 and found India home to 13 of the 20 cities with the most polluted air. More cities in India than in China see extremely high levels of such pollution. Especially to blame are low standards for vehicle emissions, fuel, burning of solid waste and ash stray burning. Nor, for different reasons, are rural people better off. Indoor pollution inhaled from dung-fuelled fires, and paraffin stoves and lights, may impact severely more than 1m Indians a year.

in vs ch

The WHO says the vast majority of Indians breathe unsafe air. There is also an incontrovertible evidence from the worldwide literature that air pollution causes damage to body tissues (especially the eyes, nasal passages, lungs, blood vessels and heart) and causes severe illness episodes and shortening of life expectancy.  Longer term effects of pollution cause cardiopulmonary problems and also increase the risk of lung cancer.  Long term studies from overseas show that pollution impairs normal development of lung function in young people, so that by the time they reach maturity at around age 18 years old they have suboptimal lung growth – a lifetime defect with major implications for health experience and life-expectancy.

                          Even our day to day simple affairs can exacerbate our exposure like say, many of us consider morning exercises are healthy, well apparently not so in our cities. Mornings experience the worst air pollution in four Indian cities, according to an analysis of particulate matter (PM) 2.5 data from IndiaSpend’s #Breathe air-quality sensors, analysed from Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai between March 15 to April 15, 2016. And the negative impact on health due this far outweigh the health gains. Unfortunately also many schools and offices start at morning hours, due to  this people especially children have high metabolism rate and breathe more thus exposing them more to air pollution.

The response

                            Despite this massive impact on health our public institutions are slow to respond because of no apparent public pressure on this issue. Informing the public is a first key step in building awareness on air pollution, protecting communities and get the citizens to act. Public are less aware of the risks posed by air pollution. In China, the expansion of monitoring and reporting systems has gone hand-in-hand with the increase in public protests about pollution. India’s growing middle class shows no immediate signs of joining their Chinese counterparts in taking to the streets to protest against hazardous pollution. This awry situation is mainly because Indian populace generally have less expectation from the government with regards to health issues and general callous attitude towards environment mainly due to lack of awareness.

Moving beyond Delhi

                              Also unfortunately in India debate on air pollution centres only around Delhi. While New Delhi grabs the headlines, air pollution levels continue to rise to alarming levels across cities in India. Infact none of our Indian cities meet the WHO guidelines and 90% of them doesnt meet our own national air quality guidelines. However, the country is yet to come to the full understanding that air pollution is a national problem and to win the fight against it, we need to act as a country and across city or even regional boundaries. Take the case of cities like Patna, meerut and Kanpur their particulate matter content rivals even that of Delhi. There’s also a general impression that southern cities are considerably well off compared to northern states. But this comparison is like comparing with the worst off. Yes, it is true that particular matter emissions are less in southern states compared to northern states owing to thier closeness to the sea, but they have significantly higher proportions of other pollutants like SOx, NOx.

                            Take the case of Chennai, averaging across its three monitoring stations, Chennai had the highest proportion of Air Quality Index marked as ‘severe’ days (17.7 per cent), and a third of all days were either of severe, very poor or poor air quality.In Delhi, high AQI values are driven primarily by PM 2.5, while in Chennai, they are driven by sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide mainly owing to vehicular emissions despite having better public transport compared to other cities.Northern India tends to have higher PM levels than southern India, and the impression in the south sometimes is that there is less pollution there. What studies have found is that there is high concentration of gaseous pollutants in other cities, and all pollutants have health risks. Incredulity of the data also comes into question because in Chennai there are only three monitoring stations maintained by the Central pollution control board(CPCB) and they too are concentrated on the industrial belts like Ennore, Alandoor and IIT-M and they are also not updated real time, so the impact on residential areas cannot be properly assessed.

What needs to be done

To address the problem,

                               1. Institute robust monitoring of air quality across the country and make the data publicly available in real time. This should be coupled with a health advisory and ‘red alerts’ for bad-air days, which would enable the public to take decisions to protect their health and the environment and automatically institute measures to protect citizens, such as shutting down schools, traffic reduction measures, shutting down power plants and industries etc.

                                   2. Use the data as a basis to fine tune pollution reduction strategies that must, inter alia seek to improve public transport and reduce petrol/diesel vehicle use, strengthen enforcement to get polluting vehicles off the roads, introduce higher fuel standards (Bharat VI), enforce stricter emission regulations and improved efficiency for thermal power plants and industries, move from  diesel generators to rooftop solar, increase use of clean renewable energy, offer incentives for electric vehicles, dust removal from roads, regulate construction activities and stop burning of biomass and waste.

                                    3. The government should mandate pedestrian plans and make it conditional to infrastructure funding. Investments must be linked with explicit pedestrian and cycling plans. The relevant laws will have to be harmonised and strengthened for more direct legal protection of pedestrian space and rights. We need a comprehensive Road users act for targeted pedestrianisation; segregation of space by users; system of penalty to prevent encroachment in pedestrian space; prevent usurpation of pedestrian space for motorised traffic without proper justification. Implement walkability audits. Public transport plans must include pedestrian plan for multimodal integration. Need zero tolerance policy for accidents.

                                      4. Promote compact city design, consistent with the principles of National Habitat Standards for Transportation. These standards have been made by the ministry of urban development to provide for compact, high density, mixed land use development near new or existing public transportation infrastructure that includes housing, employment, entertainment and civic functions within walking distance of transit. Pedestrian-oriented design features are needed.

                                        5. Use tax measures to discourage personal vehicle usage and inefficient use of fuels. For example, Centre for science and environment review shows that almost all state governments tax the buses higher than cars. Currently bus operations are treated as commercial operations and taxed high. But cars will have to be taxed higher than buses. CSE’s review shows that in Chennai a car costing around Rs.4 Lakh-Rs.10 Lakh pays a life time tax in the range of Rs.40, 000-Rs.1,00, 000 (Rs.2,666.66- Rs.6,666.66 per annum). But a stage carriage bus with a seating capacity of 40 pays a tax of Rs. 64,000 per annum with a surcharge of Rs.16, 000 making the total tax Rs.80, 000 per annum. This will have to be reversed.

                                    These strategies should be formalized as a time bound action plan which has targets and penalties. While some actions might need to be city or region-specific, there are a broad range of actions that will be universally applicable.Vocal public participation is critical in reducing air pollution. Our choices in terms of electricity, transportation and waste management can play a major role in managing pollution levels, as are our choices in terms of political leaders who support the goal of reducing air pollution.

                                     If we don’t take action now our urban centres might turn into intangible gas chambers which they already are to some extent!!!

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