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Editorial Articles

volume 33, 16-22, November, 2019

The menace of Air pollution


Anil Anand

We are at war with the nature if one is to describe the environmental catastrophe that is being witnessed currently. The question arises as to why are we, after all, at war with the nature which has given the mankind bountiful gifts- air, water and green covers being on the top of the list and the sustainers of life?

Today the entire bounty of nature including pure air, clean water and green cover are under threat. The effects of environmental degradation in all its manifestation are being devastatingly felt in India. Is it only the air pollution, which is the current headlines grabbing topic as a thick cover of smog enveloped the capital city of Delhi recently at the onset of winters. Surely, it is an area of serious concern but part of a wider net of problems.

The current debate on what has been causing air pollution has been concentrated on burning of stubble and vehicular traffic plus bursting of crackers as part of Dusshera-Diwali seasonal celebrations. There is no denying the fact that these are contributory factors and are adding to air pollution and overall environmental degradation. The need of the hour is to undertake overall study of the environmental degradation as also of the scientific developments and innovations taking place world-over to overcome this menace.

The Supreme Court of India made strong observation while hearing a case related to rising air pollution due to stubble burning by farmers in states such as Haryana, Punjab, outskirts of Delhi and other states where this exercise is undertaken by the farmers. The apex court's observation should not only be taken as a censure  but viewed in overall context. It has once again set the alarm bells ringing and is a pointer to the fact that the air pollution has become life threatening.

The threat is not only looking serious but increasing by the day which various studies have already suggested. For instance, a study report released by International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria and Council on Energy, Environment, and Water (CEEW) in New Delhi simultaneously, pointed out that over 674 million Indians are likely to breathe highly polluted air by the turn of 2030. This would happen even if the country continues to comply with its existing pollution control policies and regulations.

Technically speaking, as the report further suggested, Indians are likely to breath air with high concentration of pollutants which would go up to PM 2.5 in 2030. The study has further revealed that the Indo-Gangetic plain that covers part of states such as Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal, has the highest population exposure to this alarming PM 2.5 concentration levels.  This is primarily due to the very high density of polluting sources and reduced ventilation by the obstructing presence of the Himalayas.

This is not a one-off study but many such studies done earlier and research papers have been pin-pointing the impending dangers of environmental degradation particularly with regard to air and water pollution. These alarming signals have been met with various campaigns undertaken by the successive Governments at the Centre and Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi has taken the fight to protect environmental degradation in all seriousness and has proactively taken up the issue both at the national and international levels.

The challenge of environmental destruction is huge and it cannot be fought or set right by the Government or a single agency alone. Even if the Governments of the day- Central and the states- pursue it in all earnestness, nothing would succeed with the active participation of the people. As warned by the Supreme Court and many experts, for the fight against environmental degradation to succeed, it has to take the form of a mass movement. After all it is directly related to the question of human survival.

The core of the entire problem on this front is the population explosion. All other issues that are causing pollution flow from it. Take the case of air pollution in the country which has increased rapidly owing to population growth. As a result of which there has been a corresponding increase in the number of vehicles and thereby more use of fuels- for vehicles as well as at the domestic levels. The pressure of population growth has led to wilting of public transportation system, poor land use patterns, industrialization and more importantly, the environmental regulations remaining ineffective if not to arrest but at least check the problem to some extent.

This is high time that a comprehensive and coordinated study of various factors contributing to environmental destruction is undertaken. A holistic and not piecemeal approach is required to meet the challenge.

Prime Minister, Mr Modi was right in his approach by taking up the issue at both national and international forums. After all this a global problem and can be checked only through a coordinated effort at all levels.

A similar approach is lacking when it comes to Centre vis-a-vis the states and the states dealing among themselves.  A glaring model of this lack of coordination is being witnessed every year in Delhi when the capital faces days of serious air pollution. It is either the blame game or scoring political brownie points that takes precedence over everything else. As a result the core issue gets buried till next time such a situation arises.

The environmental protection should be made a national subject with states having an equal role to play in it. Yes, imposing immediate bans for limited periods such as Delhi government's odd and even scheme for reducing the vehicular pollution is in order and be seen as a stopgap arrangement but such interim steps cannot provide a permanent solution. There have to be long and short term plans and the long term planning should also involve developing alternatives to current modes of polluting fuels, single-use plastics and many other such items. Large number of people seek their livelihoods producing or selling these items and the alternatives would also ensure alternative means of livelihood for them. 

It is in order to have a cursory look on main causes of air pollution in India since the current debate is all about this mode of environmental destruction. This can be precisely divided into following heads; Vehicle Emissions, agricultural activities, dust and wildfires, power plants, deforestation and electronic waste.

Pollution emitting from vehicles including trucks, jeeps, cars, trains, airplanes cause immense amount of air pollution.

The ongoing debate on stubble burning is one form of agricultural pollution. The issue in its entirety requires agricultural research in the light of challenges to the environment and that would include changing crop patterns accordingly and the techniques used.

There are large areas of open land and construction area that have little or no vegetation. These are dry due to a lack of precipitation that result into winds creating dust storms.

India is the world's second largest coal burner after China, generating 210 GW of electricity a year, mostly from coal. But it is likely to become the largest if plans to generate a further 160 GW annually are approved. This along with deforestation add to the environmental degradation.

Deforestation affects the atmosphere in several ways. Forests act as sinks for carbon dioxide through a process called carbon sequestration.

And a new contributory factor to environment has come in the form of electronic waste. This is one ill-effect of technology usage. How to safely destroy or keep the electronic waste has become a great challenge worldwide.

Air pollution and resultant inhaling of toxic pollutants has become a serious health hazard for people of all age groups particularly children and old. According to a study of the Global Burden of Disease 2017, In India a child dies every three minutes due to inhaling of toxic pollutants. According to this study in 2017 alone 1,95,546 children died due to air pollution infested diseases that meant on an average 535 deaths occurred every day.

The second major reason for child mortality as recorded by this study is Lower Respiratory tract Infection (LRI) which is caused by inhaling polluted air.  LRI claimed lives of 1,85,422 children aged between 0 and 5; another 10,124 died between 5 and 10 ages due to this deadly infection. In the last 27 years, more than a crore children died before entering sixth year of their live, the study further showed.

This problem is pan-India with Rajasthan recording the maximum number of deaths where 126 children per 1 lakh died of air pollution in 2017. It was followed by Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The number was also very high in north eastern states of Nagaland, Tripura, Assam, Meghalaya, and Mizoram. In Delhi, 41 child deaths were recorded in the same year due to air pollution.

The lowest number of deaths was recorded in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Goa, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Karnataka.

Air Pollution in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) became more pronounced since 2010s. It was in 2015-16 that the various stakeholders - media, civil society and citizen's groups - started taking serious note of the poor air quality in the region. This was spurred by the increase in the particulate matter (PM) concentration.

But it was in the 1990s that Indian cities started turning into a toxic hell. This deterioration took place despite a spate of strong legislation on pollution control during the 1980s. These include the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 and the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.

(The author is a senior journalist based in New Delhi: email: a.anil.anand@gmail. com

Views expressed are personal.

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