Simi Mehta* and Amita Bhaduri**

As most developing countries, with India being on the path towards rapid growth and development, one of the most pressing issues that policymakers have to deal with is that of dealing with rising air pollution. It is one of the most prevalent issues throughout the country and is a result of a multitude of factors. Mr Chandra Bhushan, President & CEO of International Forum for Environment Sustainability and Technology (iFOREST) who is one of India’s foremost climate change experts, in a talk with Dr Simi Mehta, jointly organized by Center for Environment, Climate Change and Sustainable Development (CECCSD) at Impact and Policy Research Institute and India Water Portal on Exploring Sustainable Solutions to Air Pollution: Lessons from COVID-19 Pandemic.

Mr. Bhushan began his talk by saying how the narrative on air pollution is obsolete and highlighted the fact that the current debates around Air Pollution are mostly strongly Delhi-focused. This overlooks the fact that Delhi has unique problems, such as pollution coming from both outside and arising locally, that doesn’t exist in other parts of the country.

“Air pollution is not a Delhi problem, it is a pan-India problem. All Indian cities like Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Hyderabad exceed National Ambient Air Quality Standards by a significant margin, which are anyway 3-4 times relaxed than the standards set by WHO. By having a Delhi-focused discussion, we are neglecting a large part of the country also suffering such as cities like Lucknow, Agra, Patna or other cities on the Indo-Gangetic plain” said Mr. Bhushan in his talk.

The debate has to move beyond not just Delhi but also beyond its city-centric approach and focus on villages, that have to bear the brunt of pollution. During his talk, he also discussed the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) and stressed on not just the importance of a nationwide plan but not a city-centric one and suggested the introduction of a new layer, i.e. regional planning.

To elucidate his argument, he used the example of GRAP (Graded Response Action Plan) and the Emergency Plan notified by the Central Pollution Control Board to deal with air pollution and said that the plans put undue focus on only the transportation sector which is only twenty percent of the problem. “I call the pollution debate the twenty percent problem and eighty percent effort problem as we put eighty percent of our efforts on twenty percent of the problem, whereas eighty percent of the problem only received twenty percent of our attention” he further said.

Energy Basket 2
Energy Basket

He showcased an Energy Basket chart which illustrated the sources of primary energy supply in India. To explicate his previous points, he broke down the chart further to display the amount of fuel burnt and its Pollution potential. The chart showed that out of two billion tonnes per annum of fuel burnt, seventy-five percent of it includes coal, lignite, biomass and agricultural residues. However, our attention is concentrated on the burning of oil which constitutes only around ten percent of total fuel burning.

Even though biomass for cooking has one of highest pollution intensity and has huge health implications for women, there’s no discussion around it. “If one has to privatise, should we leave seventy-five percent of the problem (due to coal, lignite, biomass, agricultural residue) and only focus on the ten percent? This is what we have done for so many years and hence, we have been unable to solve the pollution problem”.

He contrasted the situation with that of Western European countries and the US, which targeted thermal industries and power plants to reduce air pollution and then went on automobiles. India, he said, focused on pollution by automobiles first but never addressed coal and biomass pollution.

“We have to reverse the priority, [pollution by] automobiles is important but we are the cusp of history, automobiles will increase exponentially and will make internal combustion engine obsolete very soon. But if we really have to reduce air pollution, our focus should be on the reduction of the usage of biomass, coal and lignite, and agricultural residue” said Mr. Bhushan. He also mentioned the important of considering pollution by natural sources such as dust and desertification of land.

The amount invested on monitoring is extravagant in India which can be illustrated by the fact that the Delhi state has forty to fifty monitoring stations whereas the whole country like the USA has only seventeen monitors for air toxin programme. What we need are different varieties of monitors which are smart, affordable and accurate.

What are we burning
What are we burning?

Solutions for Air pollution

He stressed on the transition in the energy sector from coal plants, which are eventually becoming non-profitable and closing down, to renewable energy, which is much more affordable and will soon overhaul conventional sources of energy. There has been massive investment on the R&D of battery technologies throughout the world with newer varieties of batteries coming up.

He suggested that while we should reduce pollution from coal thermal plants by making standards more stringent and introducing state of the art pollution technologies, we also need to start phasing out side by side and replacing it with battery technology.

He underlined the inevitability of the continued usage of biomas during this interim period due to the widespread availability of it but using innovation, state of the art biomass gasification technologies has to be introduced which can contribute towards smooth transition towards cleaner fuel. Overall, he seemed very optimistic about the transition from conventional sources of energy to renewable energy and new biomass technologies and the exponential growth in these sectors.

The transition in cooking fuel from natural gas to electricity (using induction technology) has already started and needs to be accelerated. A similar transition can also be seen in transport industry with users transitioning to battery-powered vehicles. He used the example of e-rickshaws and seemed confident that two-wheelers and four-wheelers will quickly follow suit as they are more eco-friendly and usually have longer life due to less wear and tear as a result of less working parts. He did not discount unsafe battery management and disposal but said that technology can be garnered for recycling these batteries and for their safe disposal.

In the field of agriculture, he highlighted the issue of asking farmers to stop using tillage farming which could lead to a reduction in stubble burning. However, not just that the farmers are accustomed to tillage agriculture and have been using it for centuries, the subsidies offered by the government still remain unaffordable to tenant and small farmers. Therefore, what is required is a cultural change to transition towards zero tillage farming by redesigning the combined harvester.

Overall, what can be understood is that the solution lies is harnessing the power of innovation and introducing new technologies to bolster this transition towards renewable energy. A new economy powered by renewable energy can only be established by entrepreneurs, by investing in the right technologies to smoothen this transition.

YouTube Video for Air Pollution: Challenges, Opportunities and Solutions

We acknowledge Manoswini Sarkar for assisting in making this event report. Manoswini Sarkar is research intern at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI) and Masters Candidate of Development Studies at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, Switzerland

*CEO & Editorial Director, IMPRI **Editor, India Water Portal
Image Courtesy: Gettyimages