Clean air agenda for the cities

Updated - November 17, 2021 05:05 am IST

Published - February 24, 2016 01:59 am IST

Air quality has a strong bearing on India’s ability to sustain high economic growth, but national policy has treated the issue with scant importance. This is evident even from the meagre data on pollution for a handful of cities generated by the ambient air quality measurement programme. A >new report from Greenpeace , based on NASA’s satellite data, indicates that people living in some parts of India are at greater risk for health problems linked to deteriorating air quality than those living in China. The measurements for Aerosol Optical Depth, which have been used to assess the level of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5 ) that gets lodged deep in the lungs, point to a worsening of >air quality in India in the 10-year period from 2005, particularly for States along the Punjab to West Bengal corridor, compared to China’s eastern industrial belt. This finding matches the >Air Quality Index data for cities monitored by the Central Pollution Control Board. Quite simply, pursuing business as usual is not tenable, and the Centre has to act to enforce control mechanisms that will make the air safe to breathe. This has to begin with a more comprehensive system of real-time data collection, expanding the coverage from the present 23 cities (not all of which provide full or regular information) to all agglomerations with a significant population and economic activity, and within a given time frame. Putting the data in the public domain in an open format will enable multiple channels of dissemination, including apps created by the community for mobile devices, and build pressure on both policymakers and polluters.

High levels of particulate matter in cities arise from construction and demolition activity, burning of coal in thermal plants, as also biomass, and from the widespread use of diesel vehicles, among other sources. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has six-year-old data that attribute about 23 per cent of particulates to construction activity in six cities studied, and another 20 per cent to diesel vehicles. The onus of curbing pollution from these sources is on the States, and evidently they are not taking their responsibility seriously. Greater transparency in data dissemination and public awareness hold the key to change. Technological solutions to contain construction dust are equally critical, as is the low-cost solution of covering all urban surfaces with either greenery or paving. Widespread burning of biomass for cooking can be avoided if the government encourages innovation in solar cookers. Cheap, clean-burning stoves can have a dramatic effect as well. The transformation of cities through good public transport and incentives for the use of cycles and electric vehicles — which >India is committed to achieve under the Paris Agreement on climate change — will reduce not merely particulate matter but also nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide. There is little doubt that the worsening air quality in Indian cities is already affecting the lives of the very young and the elderly, and reducing labour productivity. India needs a time-bound action plan.

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