More than 80% of the urban dwellers in the world are bound to endure outdoor pollution that exceeds health standards, as mentioned in the WHO’s World Global Ambient Air Quality Database. A whopping nine out of ten people in the world breathe highly polluted air which goes way beyond the WHO’s standards. However, even among countries gasping for breath, air pollution in India stands out with consistently, epically terrible air quality.
Situation in India
The pollution level in India is increasingly becoming an issue of immediate concern. Today, it ranks even higher than high blood pressure, smoking, child and maternal malnutrition, and risk factors of diabetes. As you read, more than 140 million people are inhaling air which is ten times, or even more, over the safe limit specified by WHO. Also, as unfortunate as it is, 11 of the world’s 12 cities with the highest levels of air pollution are in India. Though India has a low per capita generation of greenhouse gases, the country, on the whole, is ranked the third-largest after China and the United States. Several studies have revealed that Indians have 30% lower lung function as compared to the Europeans.
Air pollution is one of the crucial contributors to the demise of around 2 million Indians every year. In rural areas, most of the emissions come from biomass burning and agriculture-related activities. On the other hand, poor waste management, vehicular emissions, and depleting tree cover contribute highly to the pollution levels in urban areas.
The “gas chamber”
Delhi, the capital of the country, is home to around 19 million people. In the past few years, it has been notorious in choking air which is now turning the iconic white and preserved marble structure of the Taj Mahal green and brown. The city has been facing major pollution crisis for the past few years, with one minister even going to the magnitude of describing it as the “gas chamber.”
Causes of Air Pollution in India
More than a dozen Indian cities are facing severe pollution, but most of the particulates that are suspended in the metro regions originate in the rural areas.
Use of Biomass and chulhas
Rural areas, therefore are themselves affected by just as poor air quality, if not more. Two-thirds of the population of India still stays outside of urban areas, and nearly 80 percent of these households are dependent on biomass like dung and wood for heating and cooking. Chulhas (cookstoves) also contribute to around 25% of the outdoor air pollution in India. Not only this, but their usage also causes indoor pollution, which is extremely hazardous for children’s health, according to the WHO.
In addition to this, agrarian activities like burning significant crop stubble also add to the misery. This smoke then wafts over the major cities like Mumbai and Chennai, where it gets mixed with traffic exhaust, construction dust, and factory emissions. India’s mountains and hills also act as basins that trap toxic air over large swaths of the country, most of the time making the air too dangerous to breathe.
Another major cause of the consistent rise in pollution levels turns out to be politics. Renowned environmentalists and professors like Kirk Smith, have time and again indicated towards the weak enforcement of anti-pollution laws in India. For instance, though major cities can ban pollution sources like brick kilns within their boundaries, it is impossible to prevent the exhaust from blowing over the perimeter. Hence, it is utterly required to bring in coordinated and comprehensive laws across cities and provinces to see a visible change. However, the constituencies of rural and urban politicians are entirely different, which makes it hard to come to a common ground.
As already mentioned, urban-rural and inter-state collaboration is integral to crafting a successful policy. The Air Quality Life Index states that if we can meet the national standards for air quality, life expectancy can up by two years.
The National Clean Air Mission (CAM-INDIA) is a cross-sectoral initiative launched by the Government of India in response to the crisis. It involves the Ministries of Power, Transport, Agriculture, Construction, Environment, Rural Development, and the states. The mission aims to build a pan-India network to monitor air quality and heighten citizen awareness. Along with this, it has a five-year action plan to fight the heightening pollution level in India.
While policies are being put in place through national and state governments, it is also essential for cities to improve national performance by introducing complementary initiatives. The time has arrived for us to join hands to save our environment for ourselves, as well as the generations to come.