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  Opinion   Columnists  16 Dec 2022  Patralekha Chatterjee | Tackle toxic air now: It’s ruining our lives, future

Patralekha Chatterjee | Tackle toxic air now: It’s ruining our lives, future

Published : Dec 17, 2022, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Dec 17, 2022, 12:05 am IST

It is also glaringly obvious that apart from killing us slowly, toxic air is taking a huge toll on India’s economy

 A worker carrying LPG cylinders on a bicycle crosses a road, shrouded in a thick layer of smog, in New Delhi (PTI Photo/Manvender Vashist Lav)
  A worker carrying LPG cylinders on a bicycle crosses a road, shrouded in a thick layer of smog, in New Delhi (PTI Photo/Manvender Vashist Lav)

There is a new twist in the tale of the legendary Delhi-Mumbai rivalry. Both cities find point-scoring politically nourishing, even entertaining, as an astute foreign observer once noted. As a resident of Delhi for over three decades, I must say, I thoroughly enjoy the jousts over the rivalry which dwarfs other inter-city divides in the country. But even I was taken aback by recent news reports that Mumbai had displaced my city, even if temporarily, from the dubious perch of being the city with the foulest air.

Mumbai, India’s financial capital, which lies on the coast of the Arabian Sea, is in the news for its steadily plummeting air quality; its overall air quality index (AQI) crossed 300, considered “very poor”, earlier this month. What instantly made news was that on some days, some parts of Mumbai had air more toxic than Delhi.

Toxic air is an everyday reality for residents of Delhi. In winters, things get worse, and the AQI becomes an everyday talking point if you live in Delhi, or anywhere in the National Capital Region (NCR) or parts of northern India. We have come to a stage when we celebrate when the AQI improves a little and the quality of air is classified as “poor” instead of “severe” or “hazardous”.

And now, Mumbai has gone and beaten us on the toxic air stakes.

Even Kolkata, where I was born, where I spent many of my formative years, and where I am right now, soaking in the World Cup football fever, is also in the news for its bad air. Newspapers reported that Kolkata’s average AQI was worse than Delhi on two days in late November.

Clearly, air pollution in India is restricted neither to Delhi, nor to winters. More affluent Indians are now seeking to protect themselves by installing air purifiers, remaining indoors in more “protected air” and venturing outdoors with masks on. This helps, but only partially because air purifiers cost money and to purify each room cost a lot. Moreover, few of us can stay confined to air-purified premises all the time. What do the rest do? Children are particularly vulnerable. Also, the elderly.

Here is a snapshot of the AQI from some of India’s small towns, picked out at random from the Centre for Pollution Control Board (CPCB) portal.

At 4 pm on December 13, the AQI at Begusarai in Bihar was 457, considered severe. The corresponding figure for Howrah in West Bengal was 318 (very poor). The AQI for Samastipur, also in Bihar, was 437 (severe).

Delhi's toxic air makes news because Delhi is the national capital. It is also the city with many air quality monitoring stations, more than most megacities in India. Residents of many cities are breathing foul air -- which is making them ill. But they are unaware of how bad the air is, because there are not enough monitoring stations.

It is also glaringly obvious that apart from killing us slowly, toxic air is taking a huge toll on India’s economy.

According to a 2021 report by Dalberg Advisers in partnership with Clean Air Fund and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), air pollution costs Indian business about $95 billion every fiscal air, around three per cent of India’s total GDP.

“Conventional wisdom,” the report says, “considers air pollution an unavoidable by-product of economic growth, thus limiting the intensity of response to it. In existing literature and publications, GDP per capita and growth rate are often linked to emissions levels, one predicting the other. This has framed an understanding, with many businesses, that growth and good air quality are always in conflict, which has led to an entrenched perception of environmental regulations as being a cost that holds back companies.”

However, as the report’s findings made clear, toxic air shaves off economic growth. It leads to lower labour productivity, lower consumer footfall, premature mortality, lower asset productivity, increased health expenses and welfare losses. “Out of these, employee productivity, consumer footfall and premature mortality impact businesses directly,” notes the report.

Focusing solely on the toxic air in Delhi diverts attention from other cities and huge swathes of the country suffering from acute air pollution.

And we do not know how bad it really is. “In India, we estimate that we require around 4,000 continuous monitoring stations to represent the air pollution problem spatially and temporally -- 2,800 in urban areas and 1,200 in rural areas. Currently, data when available comes from around 600-plus manual stations and less than 100 continuous monitoring stations,” Navroz Dubash of the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) pointed out in a commentary piece in December 2017.

That number has gone up to over 800 currently. Other experts say India needs at least 1,600 air quality monitors, though 4,000 will be an ideal number.

“It is very important to understand that air pollution is a regional problem. We need to focus on regions in the country, where people are exposed to unsafe levels of pollution, and there are no monitors to determine how much that is,” stressed Mr Dubash.

The bottomline -- while air pollution shortens lives around the world, its most severe impacts are being felt in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. India has had a National Clean Air Programme since January 2019. It has failed to have any impact so far.

What do we need? First, more air quality monitoring stations so that everyone knows how bad the problem is. Second, to heed the studies that apportion the pollution sources in various cities and regions -- unchecked or poorly-checked pollution from factory chimneys, vehicles whose owners do not follow rules and a far more effective control of dust from the myriad sites where homes, offices, roads, bridges and so on are being built.

India has laws to check air pollution. The problem is in the lack of implementation. Central and state pollution control boards are woefully understaffed. Filling vacancies in these boards is one of the essential initial steps.

And all of us must make hard choices. We must decide if we are going to talk of air pollution, then get into our SUVs to go home. Or if we are going to walk the talk. Public transport needs to be drastically improved, especially outside our megacities. But that is unlikely to happen unless there is demand from the more affluent sections of society. And there will be no such demand unless all of us have a clear understanding of what foul air is doing to us -- our lives, livelihoods and our future.

Tags: delhi, air quality index, national capital region, kolkata