City-dwelling Indians are at higher risk for respiratory illnesses, heart disease, and lung cancer — because the concentration of fine particulate matter in the air is way above the guidelines of the World Health Organisation. The recently released WHO data related to Particulate Matter measuring 10 micrometres or less (PM10) for 33 Indian cities are staggeringly high. These particles enter the bloodstream through the lungs, with grave consequences for health; urban outdoor air pollution is thought to cause 1.3 million deaths a year worldwide. The cities with the worst air quality are Ludhiana, Kanpur, Delhi, Lucknow, Indore, and Agra, in that order. Significantly, the WHO pollution atlas has a lot in common with the map prepared by the Central Pollution Control Board for cities that do not meet ambient air quality standards. This is an issue of serious concern because PM10 levels in ambient air in 27 Indian cities range from 80 micrograms per cubic metre in Ahmedabad to 251 in Ludhiana, against the WHO guideline norm of 20. Sadly, the average citizen can do little to mitigate the pollution. Achieving good air quality requires intervention at the policy level in key areas — vehicular emissions, polluting small-scale manufacturing, and burning of biomass and coal.

The abysmal air quality in Indian cities calls for determined, speedy action. Thus far the response to the problem has been directed towards improving the quality of automotive fuels, mandating higher emission standards for automobiles, using CNG for commercial vehicles in Delhi and LPG in some other places, organising surprise checks on polluting industries, and so on. That these have not made a significant difference to air quality is clear proof of their inadequacy. Delhi experienced a perceptible improvement in air quality thanks to CNG, but it has begun to slide in the last few years. The WHO figures indicate that Amritsar and Kochi have lower PM10 levels than other cities, but even these are almost double the guideline figure. The answer lies in providing alternatives to fossil-fuel driven vehicles, taxing inefficient use of cars, and encouraging non-motorised transport such as cycling. No time should be lost in expanding and liberally subsidising public transport. Unfortunately, India is motorising at a rate much faster than the United States or countries in Europe did in the 20th century. The result is massive urban vehicular congestion. The imperatives of economic growth do demand better and faster mobility but this has to be achieved in smart ways that do not subject entire populations to terrible health risks.

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