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The tox-shock: Hospitals in the national capital in recent years have reported a sharp rise in the incidence of respiratory diseases and pulmonary disorders even among non-smokers in the region | Photo: Indiaspend

Deadly air, with the stench of apathy

Critically poor air quality has become typical of winter months in India, especially in northern states. This year, as toxic air once again chokes the national capital and other north Indian states, the administration has been found severely wanting in its efforts to tackle the issue. The exasperation was writ large in the Supreme Court on Monday as a two-judge bench slammed inaction on the part of the central and state governments, implying that the lives of Indians were not being valued by those in power. “Why are people being forced to live in gas chambers? It is better to kill them all in one go, get explosives in 15 bags at one go. Why should people suffer all this?” Justice Arun Mishra told the Solicitor General for the central government after being informed of the recent increase in stubble burning.

The top court’s alarm at the state of affairs is justified, to say the least. After the recent Lancet report highlighted the high levels of air-pollution related mortality in India, it was also revealed in a recent evaluation of G20 countries that India performed the worst when it came to deaths related air pollution —registering over a million deaths annually due to poor air quality.

While it is understandable that air pollution becomes a pressing matter during winter months, the protracted attention seemingly reserved for these months has apparently made air pollution a “winter issue” rather than the year-round menace it really is. While stubble burning and meteorological conditions exacerbate air pollution in the capital, the crux of the problem remains year-round sources of emissions from sectors such as transport, power, construction and power in which emission norms remain lax and poorly enforced.

Data released by the Central Pollution Control Board shows that in the national capital, annual average of PM2.5 levels last year were more than 11 times higher than the 10 micrograms/m3 standard employed by the World Health Organisation, beyond which chronic health effects can be felt. During critical months, levels up to 45 times the prescribed limit were seen. Despite all the clamour about the impacts of crop stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana on air in the NCR, the fact remains that barring a few days each year when biomass burning contributes over 40% of Delhi’s bad air, the share of biomass burning to total pollution levels rarely crosses into double digits even during the active month.

The biggest sources of pollution for Delhi are rather year-round. Three sectors- transport, industry and power, put together account for almost two-thirds of all pollution in Delhi city and over half in the entire NCR. Yet the effectiveness of most significant institutional response- EPCA, has been questionable. Afterall, not a single criminal case has been filed under the powers given to EPCA despite its special powers to initiate prosecution and rampant violations of environmental law in the region.

Even though the government has been revising emission standards for several industries over the past decade, a critical examination of the methodologies reveals loopholes that often result in weaker emission norms compared to those in other nations. The problem is not limited just to particulate matter but extends to gaseous pollutants such as NOx and Sox. Where emission standards are fixed, implementation has been a long drawn out affair. The most notable example of the lack of implementation can be seen in the case of the new emission norms for Thermal Power Plants which were to be implemented by the end of 2017, the deadline for which has now been pushed to 2022. It has also been reported that the government is also set to dilute the new norms.

While there is ample evidence of the need for regional plans to facilitate interstate cooperation to tackle air pollution in the region effectively, and despite repeated calls for the same, India is yet to formulate any kind of blueprint that would function as a regional plan. The National Clean Air Programme identifies 129 cities for priority action but do not consider the larger airsheds within which these cities are located. ‘’While city action plans have been submitted, these should be integrated with the larger airshed management strategy to make an effective plan to deal with the problem of air pollution in the country. Monitoring and compliance are key to success and unless central, state and municipal bodies work in tandem, we will return to these pollution spikes each year. The NCAP entirely lies on the CPCB and the SPCBs but their resources and capacity needs evaluation and enhancement” says Sagnik Dey, Associate Professor at the Centre for Atmospheric Sciences Indian Institute of Technology.

China’s experience in tackling air pollution points to the need for stringent implementation of progressive and tough regulations. Sadly, India’s approach thus far smacks of severe deficits in both political attention and will. As it stands, air pollution is seen as an issue that flares up about 1-2 months a year- hardly a matter that cannot be dodged and survived.

Things are showing signs of changing though, with increased pressure being put on political entities, air pollution is gradually becoming a defining political issue in several north Indian states — one that is contributing to a growing health burden on several tens of millions. It should be only a matter of time that air pollution becomes a true political priority, fought year-round on multiple fronts, and not just on those where action is deemed the easiest.