India's pollution crisis: Centre-states need to work together

Last Updated: Mon, Nov 19, 2018 13:06 hrs
Delhi pollution

One of the world’s fastest growing economies, India, has some of the most toxic air. India is home to the world’s 10 most polluted cities. Come the festival season of Diwali, things only got worse even as the apex court ordered a curb on bursting of fireworks. According to a World Health Organisation (WHO) study, over 1 lakh children have died because of air pollution in the country in 2016.

For a long time, neighbors China were fighting a battle against pollution with frequent reports of some of its biggest cities engulfed by smog. China’s economy is significantly larger than India’s and has taken some steps in tackling the pollution crisis there. In 2013, the Chinese government released the Air Pollution Action Plan; it’s most influential environmental policy. As part of it, some the country’s main population centres such as Beijing decided to close coal-fired power stations and instead gas-fired hubs were built.

In July, China unveiled the new ‘Three Year Action Plan’, which is seen as the second phase of the 2013 initiative. The plan essentially involves widespread improvements in air quality, drinkable water and ecology over the next few years. The ways in which China will do this is by urging authorities to promote green development, develop efficient and green energy systems. Several cities including Beijing were blanketed by the worst smog this year with the particulate matter (PM 2.5) hitting hazardous levels. In 2014, the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang declared a war on pollution after increasing anger from the public. These plans have shown positive results.

India has struggled to put forward a comprehensive action plan t tackle air pollution. The challenge that faces India is to balance this out with everything that comes from a rapidly growing economy. The second most populous country in the world will inevitably have challenges pollution. The Delhi government has formed a six member committee which will conduct checks of steps being taken by local bodies, the Public Works Department (PWD) and Delhi Cantonment Board (DCB).

The urban and rural centres of the country cause pollution. Farmers in Punjab and Haryana continue to burn stubble despite a court order. While the government has promoted farm machinery and there is a relative reduction in the volume of stubble burning, there are still those who continue the practice. A Livemint editorial points out the rural India problem regarding air pollution –

…contrary to popular perception, this is as much or more a rural issue; of the 1.1 million air pollution-related deaths in 2015, 75% were in rural India. The use of biomass fuels for indoor cooking, heating and light is a significant problem. Stubble burning, brick kilns coal-fired factories and woodfires for heat all contribute”.

The editorial points out that the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) does not have sufficient data on the divide between rural and urban contribution to pollution levels in the country. The CPCB which has more than 600 air quality monitoring stations, there aren’t any in rural areas.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal earlier this month blamed stubble burning in Punjab as the main reason for rising pollution levels in the national capital, saying in part, “There is a small portion of Haryana (burning stubble) but its role is quite limited. Otherwise, it (stubble burning) is mostly happening in Punjab”.

A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that India could face severe heat spells and increasing pollution if global temperatures rise by more than 1.5 degrees celsius. Last month, Erik Solheim, UN Environment Chief seemed encouraged at India’s efforts to tackle pollution saying in part, “I can see enormous energy in India from various states to beat plastic pollution who have made very very strong commitments”.

Tackling pollution is critical. Several studies published over the past few years have pointed out in no uncertain terms that children are the most affected. In 2015, then South Asia correspondent for the New York Times Gardiner Harris, in an op-ed, explained his reason for leaving Delhi due to the pollution affecting his children’s health –

We gradually learned that Delhi’s true menace came from its air… Delhi, we discovered, is quietly suffering from a dire pediatric respiratory crisis. There is a growing expatriate literature, mostly out of China, describing the horrors of air pollution, the dangers to children and the increasingly desperate measures taken for protection”.

The government has not yet released the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP). A draft released earlier this year did not provide a time frame for reaching specific targets; one of which is to reduce the PM 2.5 concentrations by 35% in the first five years of the NCAP implementation. This target is for 100 cities across the country.

The imperative in India would be for all states to tackle the problem of pollution and there should be some legal ramifications for failure to do so. An example here is the European Commission taking the UK, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Romania to the European Court of Justice for their failure to meet nitrogen dioxide standards.

Paul Romer, one of the winners for the Nobel Prize in Economics commented, “Once we start to try to reduce carbon emissions, we’ll be surprised that it wasn’t as hard as we anticipated. One problem today is that people think protecting the environment will be so costly and so hard that they want to ignore the problem and pretend it doesn’t exist”.

More columns by Varun Sukumar