The severe restrictions placed on the movements of people and goods in India and around the world have had a range of fascinating unintended consequences beyond the massive shock to livelihoods and the global economy. The most apparent of these has been the impact on the air quality in major urban centres, which has gone from near-apocalyptic levels before the pandemic to near-pristine in a matter of weeks. While the Covid-19 virus has locked us away in our homes indefinitely, 90 cities in India recorded minimal air pollution. Levels in Ghaziabad, Delhi, Noida, Greater Noida and Gurgaon – which are India’s five most-polluted cities according to the WHO – dropped by 50% since March 24, when the lockdown was announced. Other cities, often featured on ‘Dirtiest Air’ lists, such as Beijing, Bangkok, Sao Paulo and Bogota, have also reported cleaner air following curbs on mobility and economic activity.
While social media is flooded with posts celebrating clean air unseen in decades, the irony of not being able to enjoy the blue skies and fresh air isn’t lost. Neither has the huge cost that this clean air has come at. The sudden upturn in urban air quality can be ascribed mainly to the halting of construction activity and vehicular traffic, two of the biggest contributors to urban air pollution. While dust from construction activity has been found to contribute up to 58% of cities’ PM10 levels according to a 2011 CPCB study of six Indian cities, vehicular traffic has been repeatedly singled out as the biggest single contributor to levels of PM2.5 and noxious gases such as NOx. A source-apportionment study by TERI in 2018, for instance, found that vehicular transport was responsible for up to 39% of Delhi’s PM2.5 concentrations, 19% of its PM10 count and 81% of its NOx levels. Following the lockdown, levels of PM2.5, PM10, SOx and NOx have all dropped across the board. While Delhi, Noida, Gurugram, Jaipur and Pune have all recorded drops of over 40% in PM2.5 and PM10 levels since the lockdown enforcement, several cities have registered drops of over 50% in NOx levels, with Kanpur registering a decline of 72%!
“The reductions we have seen correspond to the cessation of vehicular traffic, construction activity, industrial activity and brick kiln operations, but for the first time we also have an opportunity to study India’s background levels of PM and other gases, and the influence of meteorological factors,” says Sagnik Dey, associate professor at the Centre for Atmospheric Sciences, IIT Delhi.
Interestingly, the lockdown has also exposed the poor design of air quality monitoring in several cities across the country, which have too few and poorly placed stations that provide an incomplete picture of pollution levels. For example, monitoring stations in some major cities have recorded a drastic drop in NOx levels – in Pune, levels reduced by 62% in the week starting April 6, followed by Mumbai (60%), Delhi (50%) and Ahmedabad (32%), according to SAFAR data. But, between March 23 and March 30, the four monitoring stations in Chennai showed little to no variations, revealing discrepancies in the Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations data.
But no matter how you cut it, the significant drop in pollution levels is undeniable. While the abrupt economic shutdown that it has taken to achieve this cannot substitute for a concrete clean-up plan, the cleaner air being seen in cities offers a desirable end towards which India’s clean air policies must aspire. The fact that a path to this end cannot be achieved without a deviation from the norms regarding urban mobility and development brings India’s National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) into sharp focus.
And it isn’t just sheer volume of pollutants pumped into India’s urban atmosphere that the current lockdown has revealed, it has also highlighted the morbidity that these levels signify. While simplistic prima facie studies linking particulate matter (PM) exposure to vulnerability against COVID-19 have been contested, there is little doubt on the long-term effects of air pollution on human health. Several studies over the past decade have linked exposure to polluted air with susceptibility to lifestyle disorders such as diabetes, hypertension, and other cardiovascular and cerebrovascular ailments.
These, especially diabetes, in turn have been identified as prominent comorbidities that escalate the impacts and fatality of the novel coronavirus among patients, according to a recently published Lancet study. Air pollution was also linked to increased mortality during the 2002 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) pandemic. “The hypothesis that there is a direct link between air pollution exposure and COVID-19 infection rates does not hold water. But long-term exposure contributes to several comorbidities, which make COVID-19 more dangerous through indirect linkages. Theoretically, PM suspended in the air also provides surfaces for the virus to settle on which could aid COVID-19 transmission as people breathe these particles and may contract the virus. Overnight reductions will not help in easing the health burden but reducing long-term exposure might make the country more resilient to such infections in the future,” says Arun Sharma, the director of Community Medicine, University of Delhi.
The recent experiences with the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in India is all the more reason to view the NCAP not just as an environmental policy aimed at improving living conditions, but also through the prism of public health. Launched in 2019 with an aim to reduce pollution levels by 20-30% by 2024, what sets the NCAP apart from other air pollution policies is that it recognises the need for coordination across sectors to combat the issue. It has already been allocated Rs300 crore for the development of city-specific plans and more monitoring stations, with another Rs4,400 crore promised in the recent budget. But with only one monitoring station for every 6.8 million people, as per a 2019 analysis, the road ahead is daunting, at best.
What complicates matters further is the large-scale infrastructure and development push that the government is expected to commit to in order to overcome the economic dent left by the response to the pandemic. There are already indications of which way the wind will blow. For example, an environment ministry panel has recommended an automatic extension of forest clearance for government-owned mines, whose lease period got a 20-year extension. Prakash Javadekar, the minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, also announced clearances to around 100 infra and development projects, many of which are located in areas considered by experts as eco-sensitive such as the Western Ghats.
There has also been reluctance and continued uncertainty regarding coal and thermal power investments in the country. Union Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, while announcing the budget for the NCAP programme this year, said state utilities will be ‘advised’ to close down old thermal power plants that do not meet the emission standards. While experts believe shutting down such plants would largely improve air quality, the government’s vague stance on this issue doesn’t help matters. This despite increasing evidence that coal has and will continue to become more expensive relative to renewables. A report published by Carbon Tracker just last week states that 51% of the country’s coal power costs more to run than building new renewables and that almost a quarter of the planned 66 GW thermal power capacity will enter the market with negative cashflow.
Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic must also serve as a point to embark on a path to cleaner urban mobility. While the government tries to straddle the fine line between e-mobility and IC-engine vehicles, the lockdown numbers make a compelling case for cleaner transport. Struggling auto companies will undoubtedly present a strong case for an industry specific fiscal stimulus, but the government must emphasise on a faster transition to e-mobility and work out a plan to fund the re-skilling of workers towards EV manufacturing if clean air is to remain an achievable goal.The steps required to ensure that a return to economic activity is accompanied by robust holistic action on India’s air is far from a simplistic one and would require coordination between and within several levels and agencies of the government and civil society. But if there’s one lesson that the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has left us with, it is that even the most extreme measures fall firmly within the realms of possibility if it can inspire political will and public support.