Take a look at India’s air quality map and you will be hard-pressed to find places with acceptable levels of pollution. Most of the flags are in the unhealthy and hazardous zone. Predictably, things got worse during Diwali. An IndiaSpend analysis showed that over the weekend India’s air quality was one of the worst in the world. North India recorded PM2.5 levels ‘beyond scale’, that is, values that were till then considered improbable, according to the database run by Berkeley Earth, an independent US research organisation. The Delhi smog in November last year is infamous for breaching scale barriers, like PM2.5 level reaching 999 in parts of the city, more than 16 times the safe limit of 60. Other monitoring points found even higher levels – above 400 micrograms per cubic metre, which is more than 40 times the WHO limits.

The unseen and unheard levels of air pollution in India are attributed to combustion emissions from multiple sources, including household solid fuel use, coal-fired power plants, agricultural burning, and industrial and transportation-related sources. As per Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), major sources in cities include transport sector, industry and power plants, and burning of leaves. Two definitions are important here: ambient air pollution is used for air pollution in outdoor environments, while household air pollution (HAP) is due to the inefficient or incomplete combustion of solid fuels (that is, wood, coal, charcoal, crop waste, dung, etc.). The latter is the world’s largest environmental health risk according to WHO. This fact takes on a highly dangerous form once you realise that in India more than 70 per cent of the population depends on traditional fuels for cooking and almost 32 per cent on kerosene for lighting purposes. Perhaps the best example of HAP is the crop burning in Punjab and Haryana which was a major contributor to last year’s Delhi smog. Both types of pollution disproportionately affect low- and middle-income countries, and the poor are at an even higher risk of exposure. This seems obvious – air pollution doesn’t work in isolation, it combines with other social, physical and economic factors to put already marginalised groups at a further disadvantage. Poverty, lack of awareness, inadequate measures and regulations by the government, rampant industrialisation, increased use of private transports, etc., are all significant factors that combine forces to make air pollution the global menace that it is.


Whither breathable air?
As per a 2016 WHO report, in terms of PM10 (toxic particulate matter of 10 microns or less) levels, Delhi is second only to Riyadh among the big cities for the 2011–15 period, while Mumbai and Kolkata are not far behind – and all 3 cities are much ahead of Chinese mega cities Shanghai and Beijing. Another 2015 WHO study focusing on airborne particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) had 13 Indian cities in the world’s 20 most polluted cities, with Delhi leading the way again. Particulate matter (SPM, PM2.5, PM10) are major pollutants and usually emitted by vehicles and industries. CPCB’s own research shows that 77 per cent of Indian urban agglomerations exceeded the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for PM10 in 2010 – this is sure to have increased manifold over the past years. In 2012, only Tezpur in Assam managed to adhere to WHO’s 2005 air quality guidelines for both PM2.5 and PM10 – data was available for 115 cities/towns in the country. One can take a detailed look at WHO’s data here.


According to The International Agency for Research on Cancer, particulate-matter pollution is carcinogenic to humans and a ‘leading environmental cause of cancer deaths’. Fine particulate matter like PM2.5 are the most dangerous (the smaller the particle, the more harmful) since they do not settle to the ground under gravity and are easily inhaled by humans, causing tremendous damage to the lungs. All of these are linked to serious respiratory issues, premature death in people with heart or lung disease, cancer and heart attacks. Together they result in higher mortality rates and increasing health costs. Between 1990 and 2013 alone, deaths due to air pollution in India increased by 34.5 per cent, the absolute figure for 2013 being 1.4 million. India and China account for the highest numbers of deaths due to air pollution (China’s numbers have decreased over the years). As always, children and older people are at higher risk.

A Greenpeace report in December 2015 studied the National Air Quality Index (NAQI) data and had some interesting (and worrisome) observations: for July–November, 8 out of the 14 cities (including Delhi and North Indian cities) for which data was available had PM2.5 levels almost twice as high as that of Beijing; number of days with acceptable air quality over this period for Muzaffarpur, Patna and Delhi were 0, 1 and 11 days, respectively, and particulate matter were the biggest contributor to air-quality violations in 12 out of 17 cities.

Toxic consequences
But what do these levels of pollution mean? A 2015 study led by Michael Greenstone and environmental economists from University of Chicago, Harvard, and Yale estimated that 660 million people in India lived in areas where PM2.5 levels exceeded the country’s NAAQS – keep in mind that these standards are already quite lax when compared to a country like China. The excess air pollution in these places is reducing life expectancy by an average of 3.2 years. While China saw a 17 per cent drop in this kind of pollution between 2010 and 2015, India’s increased by 13 per cent.

Analysing the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) data, a Greenpeace report released in November last year estimated that India had 3,283 premature deaths due to ambient air pollution every day, compared to China’s 3,233 per day. And this doesn’t even factor in deaths due to household air pollution (HAP). Studies have also shown a correlation between high ambient air pollution and child morbidity. GBD has already designated ambient air pollution as the fifth highest killer in India.

It has also been estimated that about 2.4 million of 5.6 million cases of chronic bronchitis, 0.3 of 0.76 million cases of tuberculosis, 5 of 51.4 million cases of cataract among adult Indian women, and 0.02 of 0.15 million stillbirths across the country are due to household air pollution caused by biomass cooking fuel. HAP is also related to adverse pregnancy outcomes such as preterm births, low birth weight, post-neonatal infant mortality, and still births.

In economic terms, a World Bank study estimated that in 2013 India lost $505.1 billion, or 7.69 per cent of its GDP, in terms of welfare losses because of air pollution, second only to China. The loss in labour output in the same year due to air pollution was $55.39 billion (2011 PPP-adjusted), or 0.84 per cent of the GDP. This brings the total GDP loss in that year alone at more than 8.5 percent.

Shortage of data, shortage of ideas
As per CPCB data, there are 629 Operating Stations in 264 cities (most of them are manual) – however, real-time air-quality data on its website is available for 12 cities only. The data collection at manual stations is intermittent and not comprehensive insofar that they monitor PM10, sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollutants only. The available data focuses on coarser particles like PM5 and PM10, with limited information on PM2.5.

In 2015, India launched its Air Quality Index monitoring system, but has just 39 stations compared to 1,500 monitoring stations in China. Also, Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations (CAAQMS) connected to the NAQI portal are available in 23 cities only, which means lesser data to work on. This needs to change urgently – without measuring pollutants regularly at local and regional levels, sources cannot be accurately identified and hence corrective measures cannot be taken. Policy decisions can only work if the recommendations are based on correct quantification of the problem. This lack of information is hampering our understanding of the magnitude of air pollution. Right now, the only time it becomes a cause for public and media concern is when it is visible in concrete form (like the Delhi smog) and hence harder to ignore. Satellite-level data along with ground-based information is needed so that the focus is on the issue at a regional level too, and not just on the plight of the big cities. Also, if the odd-even pilot in Delhi has proved anything, it is that air pollution is not a local problem but is influenced and affected by neighbouring regions. Right now, the CPCB plan is to expand the monitoring systems in all 46 cities with population of more than a million and 20 state capitals, but that has been in the offing for quite some time without any progress being made.

How to tackle the scourge of air pollution
Let’s take a look at some cities that have managed to address the air-pollution problem, to an extent at least.

Mexico City
In the 1990s, Mexico City was one of the most polluted cities in the world. In fact, it was labelled as the world’s most polluted city by the UN in 1992. It didn’t help that the city’s geographical location of being surrounded by mountains meant that pollutants were retained within the city rather than being dispersed off. Persistent smog, polluted air, hundreds of deaths and thousands of hospitalisations every year meant that urgent action had to be taken.

Measures included replacing the city’s smoke-emitting cars, removing lead from gasoline and increasing the usage of natural gas, expanding public transportation (MetroBus and bike-sharing programmes) and restricting access to the city for highly-polluting private vehicles, and relocating refineries and factories away from the city. A compulsory requirement that Mexico-based auto manufacturers install catalytic converters on cars produced for the Mexican market was also considered to be a major factor in reducing pollution levels. Air quality measuring sensors were also placed all over the city.

The results? The presence of lead in the air has dropped by 90 per cent since 1990, ozone levels decreased by 75 per cent since 1992, suspended particles reduced by 70 per cent, and carbon monoxide and other pollutants also saw a rapid fall. Right now, Mexico is not even in the world’s top 10 polluted cities. One takeaway from Mexico City’s example is the efforts of the local and national government to address the problem. After all, strict laws to control auto emissions in the face of unrelenting opposition can only be enforced by a determined government. In 2016 when air pollution suddenly saw a spike, the government declared the first pollution emergency in more than a decade and around 2 million private cars (nearly 40 per cent of private vehicles) were ordered to get off the road. However, it must be kept in mind that some of these measures have proven to be somewhat counterproductive. The limits imposed on private vehicles plying on the road mean that people are incentivised to own more than one car, although it must be said that in India this is already a common phenomenon. More worrisome are the effects of institutional corruption and lobbying by powerful groups which have the ability to undermine sincere efforts. However, there’s little doubt that Mexico City has done a pretty commendable job on air-pollution control.

Rajshahi, Bangladesh
Closer home, Rajshahi, a town in Bangladesh, was given the distinction of being the most successful at decreasing the level of air pollutants in 2015, as per UN data. Once in the world’s most polluted cities list, it has done more than any other city to rid itself of air pollution. Although it is neither an industrial area nor filled with thousands of cars, the brick kilns around its periphery ensured its place alongside Delhi and Beijing. With the situation that bad, multiple campaigns were launched including a tree-planting drive that began more than 15 years ago; cleaning-up of the brick kilns (changing chimneys and fuel) was undertaken; and efforts were made to turn the city greener which included transport policies and garbage collection. The novel intervention in transport was importing a fleet of battery-powered rickshaws from China in 2004 to facilitate public transport and banning large lorries from the city centre in daytime. Both these measures ensured significantly lower pollution from vehicles. Other programmes included a ‘zero soil’ programme (planting trees, grass, flowers, etc.) and creating pavements and cycle lanes to encourage people to walk and bike. Little wonder, then, that the levels of PM10 particles went down from 195 micrograms per cubic metre in 2014 to just 63.9 in 2016 (the largest drop in the world in absolute terms), and PM2.5 particles decreased to 37 micrograms per cubic metre from a high of 70.

Beijing, China
Many Indians tend to take heart from the fact that when it comes to issues like air pollution, China’s condition is as bad as ours. Both Beijing and Shanghai are repeatedly mentioned in the world’s most polluted cities lists.

Notwithstanding the ubiquitous images of the Chinese populace with masks around their faces, both cities are doing much more than their Indian counterparts to tackle this problem. China’s 12th Five-Year Plan (which ended last year) had invested more than 5 trillion yuan ($780 billion) in environmental protection during the plan period. The number is expected to increase in the next Five-Year Plan, which has already made air pollution a key focus area with specific targets like reduction of factory emissions of PM2.5 by 25 per cent.

In 2014, Beijing’s authorities allocated 760 billion yuan to improve the city’s air quality by 2017, with set targets in curbing emissions. The measures included reduction in coal burning (a major source of pollution) and replacing coal with natural gases, limiting car emissions and removing highly polluting vehicles, setting yearly quotas for local governments and individual polluters, and bigger fines for violators. The city plans to eliminate the use of coal in its six downtown districts and shut down all coal-fired boilers by 2020. Similar targets have been set across the country at both national and local levels. Beijing has also benefited from the regional air-quality regulations that ensure coordination among various cities and states since air pollution is not just a localised problem. Implementing steps like installation of high-tech pollution-abatement equipment on its power plants (including 95 per cent of its thermal plants), restricting car ownership in major cities, and developing a network of 1,500 air quality-monitoring stations in over 900 cities has helped tremendously. Red alerts are also issued whenever the air quality crosses a critical threshold. China’s overall environmental law implementation has been said to have improved according to experts.

And the results are showing.  Beijing is no longer a member of the world’s 20 most polluted cities. The city’s average concentration of PM2.5 was 81 micrograms per cubic metre in 2015, which is 6 per cent less than the figure in 2014 and 10 per cent lower than 2013, although the number is still higher than its own standard of 35 micrograms per cubic metre. The number of days of most serious PM2.5 pollution has also seen a decline over the years. Other pollutants like sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide have decreased by 38 per cent and 12 per cent, respectively. Not surprisingly, from 20 August to 3 September in 2015 when restrictions were imposed on the functioning of polluting companies and construction sites as well as on driving, the daily concentration of PM2.5 averaged only 17.8 micrograms per cubic metre.


So, what can be done to address this major public health problem in India? Aside from the examples set by the aforementioned cities and the urgent need for regular and comprehensive data, there are a few that are obvious (and if not, there’s enough literature out there to make it so).

The first is ecofriendly public transport that actually works and functions in a seamless, cost-effective manner. This ties up with better urban planning that takes into account the importance of green spaces, bike lanes and being pedestrian-friendly (European cities have already shown how it can be done).

Transport is already a major source of pollution and the usage of private vehicles needs to be brought down drastically, else other measures will be of little use, especially in the bigger cities. Sub-standard vehicles (including trucks and other freight vehicles) need to be phased out or upgraded to cleaner technology – some sort of government subsidy will be required, though. As per the Auto Fuel Vision 2025 Committee, India is 10 years behind the United States and European countries in terms of clean auto-fuel standards. Instead of the snail-like pace that has become the defining feature of the Bharat Stage (BS) norms, it may be better to have a well-laid-out plan to catch up with China at least. Skipping straight to BS VI is a welcome move.

When it comes to HAP, community awareness and participation will be key to any substantial, long-term reduction. Making alternate cooking fuels or modern technologies acceptable will need government support, interventions by civil society groups and easy, affordable access to these solutions. Right now, there is little or no effort in this space and HAP continues to be a hazard to a huge portion of the country’s population.

Then there’s the case for higher investments and bigger and bolder solutions to curb this problem. In case policymakers and the ruling elites aren’t perturbed by air pollution’s human costs, both WB and OECD data have shown that the economic costs of air pollution are tremendous. Another step that can be taken is to move from criminal to civil penalties wherein transgressors will pay hefty fines or be given incentives to reduce pollution. Right now, critics say, the punitive measures for violations are so severe that they are not even imposed most of the times.

The case for combating air pollution has never been stronger, nor has the issue ever taken such serious proportions. And this is without accounting for the fact that ignoring this issue means even worse fallouts from the catastrophe that is global warming. Forget the GDP cost, if India wants to stop millions of its citizens from dying untimely deaths every year, it needs to take drastic (and hopefully well planned) measures. This is literally a matter of life and death.