Gurinder Kaur

According to the study by international team of researchers from the University of Birmingham and UCL, comprising scientists from the UK, Belgium, Jamaica, and India, released their findings highlighting air pollution is on the rise in a number of cities in India, including Delhi. This study used observations from instruments on satellites that scan the global skies every day. Researchers used a long record data by space-based instruments to estimate trends in a range of air pollutants from 2005 to 2018.

According to the study, the amount of PM 2.5 and nitrogen oxide particles, both hazardous to health, have been steadily increasing in Delhi and Kanpur from 2005 to 2018, while the amount of both pollutants has been declining in London and Birmingham over the same period, reflecting the success of policies in controlling sources that emit these pollutants. The study also found formaldehyde in air pollutants that scientists had never mentioned in the earlier studies.  The presence of formaldehyde in the air of Delhi, Kanpur, London, and Birmingham also took researchers by surprise. According to researchers, formaldehyde emissions in London and Birmingham come from personal care and cleaning products and a range of other household sources, while in India it comes from vehicles as well.

Though this is not stand alone on rising air pollution in Indian cities. Every year one or the other international organization releases a report on the rising air pollution, but instead of making efforts to reduce the pollution, the Indian and state governments avoid it every time by making excuses. According to the World Air Quality Report 2020, released on March 17 2021, Delhi has been the world’s most polluted capital for the third year in a row. Additionally, 14 of the top 15 most polluted cities in the world and 22 of the top 30 are from India, while China, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have only two each.

Jeopardize Health and Mass Killings

Increasing air pollution not only pollutes the environment, but also adversely affects the health of all kinds of organisms (flora, fauna and humans). According to the India State-Level Disease Burden Initiative, 1.7 million people died in India due to air pollution during 2019. According to a report by Greenpeace’s Southeast Asia in 2020, 54,000 people died of air-borne diseases in Delhi alone. The pollution killed 25,000 people in Mumbai in 2020; 12,000 in Bangalore; 11,000 in Hyderabad and 11,000 in Chennai.

The worst effects of air pollution are on children’s health. According to a study by researchers from All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Kalawati Saran Children’s Hospital and Vallabhbhai Patel Chest Institute, increasing levels of air pollution increase the incidence of lung and respiratory diseases in children aged 3 to 5 years from 21 to 28 per cent.

Air pollution causes premature death for the urban poor. According to a recent report released by the University of Birmingham, more than 46,000 poor people in Delhi often sleep on the sidewalks after a day’s work due to lack of accommodation and inflated rents. These people also work in the most polluted places like industries, thermal plants, construction sites due to which they die prematurely because of exposure to air pollution.

Despite so many deaths happen due to air pollution in the country every year, our Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar had inadvertently made a statement that no research shows that Indians die from air pollution. Maria Nair, Director of the World Health Organization (WHO), responded to Javadekar’s statement at a meeting with COP in Madrid. It was quoted as a satire in the 25th conference and Maria Nair said how good it would be if Indians were not affected by air pollution, but Alas! This is not the truth.

Air Pollution’s cost to the Economy

Air pollution not only kills people prematurely but also shortens their life expectancy. According to Greenpeace Southeast Asia Analysis, out of 28 cities around the world Delhi has suffered the highest economic losses from air pollution, standing at ₹58,895 crore. Mumbai has lost about ₹26,000 crore, Bangalore ₹12,000 crore, Hyderabad ₹11,000 crore and Chennai ₹10,000 crore.

Apart from economic losses, air pollution also comes at a heavy cost to society. Air pollution costs millions of rupees on lung and respiratory diseases as well as heart and skin diseases. People who die succumbing to these diseases loose some of their relatives which is a never ending social loss.

Roots of the Massacre – What Govt. should do?

The main causes of air pollution in Delhi are the increasing number of vehicles and industries, construction work, burning garbage dumps, thermal plants, dust on the roads, burning of crop residues in the northern states, the annual fires and its fumes, and firecrackers during Diwali.

The state and central government need to take four measures to reduce air pollution which are as follows:

Firstly, government should ban occasional indiscriminate use of firecrackers on Diwali, Dussehra and weddings and take legal action against violators.

Secondly, Union Government should provide machinery to the farmers at affordable rates to protect Delhi from crop residue smoke pollution and help Punjab, Haryana and other states to adapt to the cropping pattern suitable to their agro-climatic conditions.

Thirdly,  Government should enact serious and strict enforcement of environmental laws to reduce pollution from sources such as industries, power plants, construction sites, garbage dumps, brick kilns, etc. located in Delhi. At the time of the lockdown (2020) due to COVID-19 the government was forced to shut down industries and private vehicles, leaving the skies clear, while farmers in Punjab and Haryana were harvesting their crops and burning crop residues but this didn’t increase Air Pollution levels during that time. Therefore, the Delhi government should take legal actions against industries that do not comply with environmental regulations.

The rules set by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) in 2015 should be strictly enforced on coal-fired thermal plants that emit large amounts of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and PM10 and PM2.5 particles into the atmosphere on a daily basis. The owners of the thermal plants had made a writ petition to the Supreme Court for relaxation in the environmental regulations of 2015 and they have been granted relief till 2022.

According to a report by the Center for Science and Environment, currently only 2 out of 12 thermal plants meet environmental regulations. Such laxity on the part of the government is responsible for the rapid pollution of Delhi’s environment. The government should use modern technology to deal with the piles of garbage. Strict adherence to environment friendly rules should also be observed on construction sites.

Lastly, the government should make the means of public transport more efficient by making long-term plans to reduce the number of private vehicles. The use of coal for power generation should be stopped completely so that Delhi and other cities in India can be free from air pollution. Air pollution is an invisible poison that is devouring thousands of lives every day. Seriously, this air pollution has already weakened the lungs of people who are now saying goodbye to the world in an instant suffering the effects of COVID-19. The government needs to take immediate steps to protect the people from air pollution.

About the Author

Gurinder Kaur
Prof Gurinder Kaur is the Professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala and Visiting Professor, IMPRI

Watch Prof Gurinder Kaur in IMPRI #WebPolicyTalk – Delhi’s Air Pollution and its Solutions