Air Pollution: Minus 10 years of your life

Pollution control must be at the core of urban development. Ad-hoc, kneejerk responses and populism are not going to help, writes Bharat Dogra

The toxic haze that engulfed Delhi on the morning of 13 November 2023, the day after Diwali
The toxic haze that engulfed Delhi on the morning of 13 November 2023, the day after Diwali

Bharat Dogra

Air pollution is more than a concern, it’s the crisis of our times, the one we feel in our lungs with every tortured breath. Worldwide, as many as 7 million premature deaths from lung cancer, heart disease and stroke are attributed to air pollution every year. As air pollutants like carbon dioxide are also greenhouse gases, the need to reduce them becomes even more urgent.

India’s cities are at the centre of the air pollution crisis. The IQAir ‘World Air Quality Report 2022’ reveals that in 2021, not one single city in India met the updated WHO safety standards of

5 micrograms of PM (particulate matter) 2.5 per cubic metre of air; while almost half our cities exceeded the limit by almost 10 times.

A study by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) has shown that life expectancy may be reduced by as much as nine years in a highly polluted city like Delhi, the fourth most polluted city in the world based on an annual average PM2.5 concentration (μg/m³).

This despite the National Clean Air Program (NCAP) having been started in 2019, covering 100 of the more polluted cities. Serious air pollution has been repeatedly reported not only in the context of landlocked cities like Delhi (as well as several other towns and cities of the National Capital Region), but also from a coastal city like Mumbai which, until some years ago, was supposed to be relatively well-protected from the worst of air pollution due to fresh sea-breezes.

No more, thanks to several man-made factors, including relentless, indiscriminate construction.

With the whole world reeling from this upsurge, the few notable successes in checking air pollution could go unnoticed. A recent note by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) mentions some encouraging initiatives in five cities—Paris, New York, Seoul, Bogota and Accra, which is the first African city to join the BreatheLife campaign started as a joint initiative by several international agencies.

One highlight that struck me in particular was in Seoul, where a ‘wind path forest’ has been created by planting trees at calibrated intervals along rivers and roads to channel air into the city centre. India needs to come up with such innovative solutions.

While the launching of the NCAP was a much-needed step, it was stymied from the start due to underfunding and blinkered vision. Some short-term successes have been reported from cities like Raipur, but the overall situation remains very bleak and worrying.

As many cities under the control of different governments suffer from similarly grave pollution problems, the blame cannot be laid at any one particular door—rather it should be seen as a larger failure of governance. The failure lies in falling short of the requirements of 21st-century urban governance—one which involves attentive and adequate care for the environment.

Instead of well-informed planning and thoughtful implementation, urban governance in India is driven all too often by ad-hoc responses, populism and corruption. What is still not being acknowledged is the fact that pollution control should be at the core of urban development. Given our bedevilled legacy, and mounting worries for the future, urban planning needs to play a bigger role, with multi-layered improvements.

When it comes to a city like Delhi whose importance as the country’s capital is well recognised, there has been no dearth of statistics, studies and various initiatives based on them. Yet, glaring deficiencies remain. Most of the hectic attention paid to this issue is confined to a concentrated period when the problem is most acute.

For the rest of the year, it’s on the back-burner, with the result that the base level of pollution is not reduced, and is already at a high level when the difficult days of maximum pollution arrive.

Much has been said about the various steps being taken by the government to reduce vehicular pollution, including Bharat Stage VI Emission Standards.

These may have played a positive and helpful role, but if you zoom out, you see how these policies have also supported the very rapid growth of private car ownership, at a far higher rate than is good for the health of our cities. Meanwhile, public transport has not received equal attention, and has, in fact, gone from bad to worse in several places.

Air Pollution: Minus 10 years of your life

Another aspect that has generated more media attention than actual results is stubble burning. Several solutions have been suggested, not all of which are consistent with each other. One much-discussed solution has been to find economically profitable uses for paddy crop stubble, setting up the infrastructure for which may involve disproportionately high investments.

The other suggestion is to replace paddy cultivation in the kharif season with crops that are less water-intensive. This, we are told, will solve not just the stubble problem but also the problem of over-exploitation of water. Clearly, the two approaches are not consistent with each other but after years of debate neither seems to have been moved to the next level.

There are other indications of how skewed our attention to the pollution question has been. In August last year, for example, two 100-metre high skyscrapers—one with 29 storeys, the other 32 storeys, both in NOIDA, very close to Delhi—were demolished using 3,700 kgs of explosives.

The demolition generated 80,000 tonnes of debris along with massive amounts of dust, endangering human health as well as birds. While there were genuine complaints of construction regulations having been neglected, there was no complaint of the buildings being unsafe.

Hence, instead of demolition, an inventive solution would have been to fine the constructors an equivalent amount, and use the money to create a garden of several thousand indigenous mixed trees. Instead, we got 80,000 tonnes of debris and highly polluting dust mixed with explosive residues on a massive scale.

Have demolitions been identified as one of the prime causes of dust pollution? No. On the contrary, demolitions are on a roll, with more unnecessary and unjust ones being carried out in recent times than we can keep track of.

This draws attention to another neglected aspect of our so-called urban governance—distorted policies that not only escalate pollution but are, in addition, highly unjust to people, particularly from the weaker sections.

Even a coastal city like Mumbai has seen a spike in air pollution.
Even a coastal city like Mumbai has seen a spike in air pollution.

Recently, I spoke to several victims of demolition drives in Delhi. Evicted several years ago from the relatively central parts of the city to its outskirts, they told me that while earlier they used to walk to work, now they have to travel almost daily in crowded buses.

So first, the demolitions had generated huge dust and debris pollution, and then, everyday emissions had increased on account of people having to take transport to work. Such situations raise questions about the flawed and elitist concepts of urban planning in India. Instead of addressing or minimising the problem, they aggravate it.

In another instance, I interviewed several women who collected clothes from middle-class homes in exchange for utensils. These clothes were then repaired and refurbished for sale in the second-hand market. A fine example of creating wealth from waste, in the process generating livelihoods and providing bargain-price wardrobes for the poor.

The biggest centre of this work was near Raghubir Nagar in Delhi, a lively, colourful and entertaining place of commerce, with women bantering as they bartered—five spoons for those two sweaters, one bowl for these three shirts…

Unfortunately, the huts of these enterprising women were flattened to the ground some years ago. While covering this large-scale demolition, I became aware of the massive disruption caused to this community. When

I went to meet them in the distant place where they had been sent, I not only learnt about their increased difficulties and diminished incomes, I also spotted the same pattern. The spike in transport-related pollution caused by daily travel to workplaces, in addition to demolition-related debris and dust pollution.

What is more, the outer areas of the cities where the poorest people are being pushed have not seen a commensurate rise in essential facilities, including sanitation and water. Widespread squalor and widespread unemployment are the two immediately visible outcomes of official ‘clean-up campaigns’.

This is a missed opportunity. If creatively used, para-urban areas can become centres of afforestation and agro-ecology, contributing to cleaner air, as well as the supply of fresh and healthy food to the city.

While thus far the reduction of pollution has been envisaged more in terms of an agenda which displaces the poor from their homes and livelihoods, there is a strong case to be made for greening programmes in urban and para-urban areas which can provide highly creative jobs to the poor on a big scale.

Integrating concerns for social justice and environmental protection seems to me the best way forward for urban planning and governance in India.

While any efforts to check pollution must have a sound scientific base, an excessively technocratic approach will not work. Ultimately, the big tasks ahead must be related to the dormant energy and creativity of common people, particularly from the weaker sections. Some of the poorest people languishing in neglect and unemployment today can play an important role in the ecological regeneration of urban India—if adequate creative livelihoods are generated for them in the greening of cities.

In the voluminous literature on reducing air pollution, you will not find much of a mention for integrating justice and ecology concerns, but this is where hope lies for the future of our cities.

(Bharat Dogra is honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now and author of Protecting Earth for Children, Planet in Peril and A Day in 2071)

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines