Last week, when the Chennai city corporation was given an award for sustainable development, the city’s residents were waking up to hazy skies and thick smog. This is the reality of India’s fight against pollution. On the one side, authorities are planning measures to reduce carbon and other noxious gas emissions. On the other, polluting industries and technologies continue to pump a cocktail of poisonous gases into the air we breathe.
The authorities, those in the states and at the Centre, seem reluctant about regulating pollution-causing activities, for fear of upsetting industries and markets. In January 2010, the Manali industrial area in Chennai was identified as a ‘critically polluted area’. Almost a decade later, the area last week recorded PM2.5 levels of 342 microgram/cubic metre—almost six times over permissible levels. Though prolonged exposure to fine respirable pollutants can cause severe lung ailments and premature death, precious little has been done in Manali. The most authorities have managed to do in a decade is impose fines on erring industries and short-term moratoria on new plants or expansion activities.
A study by Swiss researchers earlier this year found Indian coal power plants to be the ‘unhealthiest’ in the world. The plants only remove a fraction of pollutants while also using inferior coal, the researchers said, while calling for an urgent upgradation of facilities. Air pollution caused by these factors kills a whopping 1.2 million Indians each year, and is the third-biggest cause of death. Meanwhile, to protect the environment, governments come up with ‘alternatives’ that are not really solutions. Take for instance electric vehicles. Instead of capping the sale of private diesel vehicles or boosting the adoption of public transport, governments are focussing on increasing the sale of e-vehicles. The untold truth is electricity to charge an e-vehicle most often comes from dirty coal.Chennai and Delhi are the just the beginning. Unless the root cause of pollution is addressed, more cities will wake up to hazy skies in the future.