Photo: Press Trust of India

Action on air pollution has now become a top public priority, show a slew of perception surveys

Policy-makers, where are thou?

Air pollution in India escalated to prominence when the World Health Organisation (WHO) ranked New Delhi as the world’s most polluted city in 2014. The massive disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, has once again brought polluted air to public attention. As people across the country witnessed blue skies, each one of us have become acutely aware of how long we have lived with poor air quality.

A recent survey by the Clean Air Fund (CAF), a philanthropic and advocacy organization found that over 90% Indians want improved air quality. Seven out of 10 respondents were concerned about air pollution and its health impacts. CAF’s survey conducted across five countries – India, UK, Nigeria, Poland and Bulgaria – highlighted that globally 71% of the public are concerned about air pollution as a public health issue and 76% consider it an environmental issue. The survey also indicated overwhelming support for government action in terms of better regulation to deal with pollution.

Over the years, multiple public perception surveys conducted by various agencies have proven that the public understanding of the issue has gradually increased. Yet, there clearly remains room for further change in attitude and action. As such, while technical terms like Particulate Matter 2.5 & 10 and Air Quality Index might be unknown to the public, the ill-effects of air pollution are not.

In 2018, ASAR Social Impact Advisors conducted a “Perception Study on Air Quality” across different demographics in 17 cities, taking a sample size of 5000 citizens. The top three environmental issues identified were air pollution at 46.4%, drinking polluted water at 19.5% and global warming and climate change at 12.2%. About 89% people in Delhi felt sickness or discomfort due to the bad air quality and most of them believed that motor vehicles and felling of trees were the major causes behind pollution.

In a separate survey, Delhi’s resident welfare associations (RWAs) body, United Residents Joint Action (URJA), covered 10 locations in the city to test people’s understanding of the subject. All respondents lived within 5 km radius of monitoring stations installed by pollution control authorities. The survey established that 93% of Delhiites did not understand the Air Quality Index and 89% were unaware of pollution monitoring devices in their neighbourhood, but 73% of the respondents remained “not satisfied” with the quality of air in the national capital.

The 3 pervasive themes which emerged in all surveys over the years were an emergent consensus among the public about air pollution as a serious environmental hazard, its adverse health impacts, and the public perception of industry as the main source of pollution. Interestingly, this understanding was not limited to Delhiites alone despite the city hogging media attention on the issue. ASAR’s survey in cities like Korba, Varanasi, Chandrapur, Singrauli and Nagpur clearly highlighted the extent of the problem across the country.

These perceptions resonated in another recent survey conducted by Lung Care Foundation (LCF). This survey claims that 92% of respondents, out of a sample size of 1750+ people in Delhi, were unaware of the difference between PM2.5 and PM10. It further found that such people were also unaware of the closest air quality monitor. Noteworthy that the LCF survey was conducted with 87% of the respondents who had never been to school, or studied up to 8th standard or 12th standard only. While the scientific jargon and the technology may not be well known across classes, LCF findings also established that 82% were aware of air pollution impacts on their lungs and 77% were willing to switch to public transport to contribute to clean air. Nearly four out of ten respondents had been to the hospital for respiratory ailments in the last one year, which is significant and speaks to the intensity of the problem.

The pandemic has been a moment of self-reflection. It has made people consider behavioral and attitudinal changes if they lead to societal benefits. With shutting down of most anthropogenic sources, the drop in air pollution and the resultant glimpse of blue skies was a real-life experiment to visualise the future we want.

Capturing that sentiment, a survey we conducted at Climate Trends pointed out that 90% of respondents across 10 Indian cities believed that air pollution impacts them personally and nearly 1 in 2 respondents indicated that they suffer from air pollution related health problems like respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. The lockdown introduced new trends like work-from-home (WFH) which nearly 80% believe could contribute to cleaning the air if they continued WFH as a practice even after the lockdown ended. Most people, nearly 7 out of 10, demanded strict government action against air pollution – a finding which has resonated across the globe and matches with the 5-country survey released by CAF.

The string of public perception analyses over the last couple of years clearly establishes that public understanding of India’s air pollution crisis has gradually increased over the years. There is now a clear demand for creating greener spaces in cities, increased public transportation, preference for options like work from home, and penalising polluters. As India tackles its economic recovery, it’s necessary that these plans include measures to curb pollution sources.

The lockdown has given an unprecedented lesson in how quickly clean air can be realised if major sources are removed from the environment. It has also shown, despite the lockdown, some level of pollution persists. This explains that it is best to cut emissions at source, because once they are in the air, cleaning up is a lost battle. Exposure to outdoor and indoor air pollution results in 1.2 million deaths in India annually. COVID-19 has taught a tough lesson in public health preparedness and air pollution ranks high in that category.