'Act now for improved air quality in 15-20 years'

Delhi's smog made headlines in early November 2016 -- when air-quality levels exceeded by 40 times safe limits set by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Published: 21st November 2016 01:50 PM  |   Last Updated: 21st November 2016 01:50 PM   |  A+A-

A crow sits on the railing of an overpass amidst the smog. (FileAP)


Delhi's smog made headlines in early November 2016 -- when air-quality levels exceeded by 40 times safe limits set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Pallavi Aiyer, a journalist who's lived and reported from some of the most polluted cities in the world, and author of aChoked', a new book that investigates Delhi and India's air-pollution crisis, argues that many countries have been in this situation, and we must learn from their experiences. Excerpts from the interview:

Q: Recently, Delhi reported 24-hour average air pollution levels nearly 40 times above the WHO's guidelines (25 Aug/mA). How hazardous is this?

A: Fine particulate matter that is less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter has been linked to up to 16,200 premature deaths (and a staggering six million asthma attacks) per year in Delhi alone. There are reports that one of every four children in the Indian capital suffers from a serious lung disorder. Other constituents of air pollution such as Sulfur Dioxide, Ozone and Nitrogen Oxides are associated with a range of short-term and long-term health effects from reduced lung capacity, shortness of breath, to heart disease and even cancer.

But Delhi's air pollution is not unique. India is a large, industrialising, populous, developing country and all countries in similar circumstances have undergone extensive episodes of polluted air. Pollution is a multifaceted phenomenon that results from a combination of vehicular, industrial and household sources. The burning of fuels such as coal leads to noxious gases such as Sulfur Dioxide. Diesel engines spout huge amounts of Nitrogen Oxides. Construction dust contributes to coarse particulate matter. And all of these sources are responsible for finer particulate matter, what we call PM 2.5.

In addition to all these, Delhi also suffers from its geography. The Indian capital is landlocked, with few avenues for flushing toxic air out of the city unlike, say, Mumbai. It is also located in a highly polluted air-shed and badly affected by the industrial and agricultural activity across the northern plains of India.

Q: Beijing no longer features in the WHO's list of 20 most polluted cities. What are the lessons we can learn from their robust efforts to improve air quality?

A: Although Beijing may still be a poster child for what not to do on the issue of pollution in the international imagination, China has actually undertaken far-reaching and difficult measures to ensure that the worst is over. According to NASA satellite data, the PM 2.5 levels across India got worse by 13 per cent between 2010 and 2015, while China's steadily improved. Last year was the worst on record for India in terms of particulate pollution and the best in China.

China has instituted a broad, regionally-coordinated system of air pollution monitoring, installed high-tech pollution-abatement equipment on a majority of its power plants, as well as devised means to restrict car ownership in major cities. It has also developed a network of 1,500 air quality-monitoring stations in over 900 cities (India has only 39 such stations covering 23 cities). Significantly, China has instituted regional air quality regulations to ensure that air pollution is addressed jointly across city and state boundaries.

When it comes to industrial pollution, China's biggest success has been the installation of basic pollution abatement equipment on a majority (95 per cent) of its thermal power plants. In contrast, only 10 per cent of Indian power plants have similar equipment. China's coal use is also down and coal-fired power plants are increasingly efficient.

Q: What are the systemic problems in implementation that need immediate attention to help India achieve better air quality nearly as soon as China has?

A: Setting deadlines for meeting national air quality standards, as well as five-year interim targets for reducing pollution at state and city levels is one measure. Regional action plans that cover entire air-sheds/regions and address all major sources of pollution, rather than focusing on just some, is another. More empowered and better-staffed pollution control boards are needed. India's Central Pollution Control Board has 550 employees. The Delhi pollution control board has less than 200 staff. In contrast, the Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB) of the city of Yantai in China's Shandong province alone has 4,000 staff. We also need to develop more local-level environmental institutions to regulate and implement anti-pollution policies. India only has pollution control boards at the national and state levels. China has EPBs at national, provincial, prefectural, city or county, and district levels. It even has some EPBs at the multi-provincial level.

Q: What are the notable international great smog events in history that Delhi seems to have paralleled this year after Diwali? What made these similar? And what makes Delhi different from those horror stories?

A: One example is the small industrial town of Donora, Pennsylvania, in the United States, which was engulfed by a putrid fog on October 26, 1948. Unlike usual fogs, it did not dissipate, staying on the ground for five days. Twenty people died in Donora and 7,000 were hospitalised with respiratory problems. The cause was a weather anomaly that trapped toxic waste emissions from the town's zinc smelting plant close to the ground. The Donora disaster brought air pollution into focus in the US, and paved the way for the Clean Air Act of 1963. Similarly, in London, toxic smog trapped in a thermal inversion during a week in December 1952 is thought to have killed 4,000 people prematurely. This incident helped pave the way for England's Clean Air Act in 1956.

Much closer to home, was last winter's smog in Beijing, which forced the city to trigger its first-ever Red Alert, the highest tier of the four-colour smog warning system China set up in 2013. During this time, PM 2.5 levels in the Chinese capital exceeded 900-1000 Aug/mA in some parts of the city (the safe limit is about 50 Aug/mA).

What makes Delhi's fight against pollution today different from historic episodes is that research on the ill effects of dirty air is both more advanced and more widely disseminated. There is no need for us to reinvent the wheel. Technologies, including pollution abatement equipment, renewable energy and better-grade fuel exist, that did not a half-century ago.

Q: In your book, you've talked about pollution in the industrialisation phase in developed countries. How did they improve their air quality to present standards and what solutions can we in India take away from those experiences?

A: There was no magic wand. Air pollution is a man-made problem with practical solutions available. In the wake of horrific pollution and growing citizen disenchantment with dirty air, countries such as the US and UK enacted environmental laws. The US Clean Air Act established a national programme with allocated funding to research techniques for monitoring and controlling air pollution, as well as to enforce interstate air pollution regulations pertaining to vehicles and industry. It paved the way to the setting up of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an institution that consolidates pollution-related research, monitoring, standard-setting and enforcement activities into one body. The EPA has about 18,000 full-time employees.

Q: What should India's to-do list be, when should action begin and how long do you think it will be before we see some improved air quality in the National Capital Region?

A: Concerted action should begin now for improved air quality to become a sustainable reality in about 15-20 years. It's a long slog, but it will allow our children and grandchildren to stop choking and start breathing. The to-do list is long. Here are some essentials:

1) Expanding the scope and quality of public transport.

2) Stringent vehicular emissions norms and availability of high-grade fuel.

3) Congestion charges and higher parking fees are steps to consider.

4) Installing pollution abatement equipment on all power plants.

5) Reducing coal usage.

6) Development of a large network of monitoring stations in all major urban centers.

7) Make the power grid more reliable as wealthy residents, hospitals and businesses use diesel-generators when there is no power.

8) Finally, given the high percentage of PM 10 that originates from road dust, paving more roads is a must.

Q: What is the to-do list for citizens in this movement toward better air quality?

A: Carpooling, composting and consuming with care. Avoiding polluting behaviours like trash burning or bursting firecrackers. Demanding change from elected representatives.


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