Dealing with Air Pollution: Political will is key

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Every year World Environment Day (WED) is observed all over the world on June 5, around a theme that draws attention to a particularly pressing environmental concern. The theme for 2019 is “Air pollution”, which is very relevant for India. China will be hosting the WED this year. Since it began in 1974, the event has grown to become a global platform for public outreach that is widely celebrated in over 100 countries.

Resulting in Premature Death

Approximately 7 million people worldwide die prematurely each year from air pollution, with about 4 million of these deaths occurring in Asia-Pacific. Shockingly, 12 lakh people are dying 2.6 years prematurely due to toxic air quality in the country, much higher than the global average of reduced life expectancy of 20 months, says State of Global Air Report 2019. According to the report, air pollution is the third highest cause of death ranked just above smoking in India. Particulate Matter (PM) under 2.5 micrograms, ozone and household air pollution is making a child born today, die 20 months sooner, on average. The earlier report had estimated 11 lakh deaths in India in 2015 and it is increasing year by year.

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Air pollution occurs when harmful or excessive quantities of substances including gases, particles, and biological molecules are introduced into Earth’s atmosphere. PM 2.5 are tiny particles in the air that are size about thirty times smaller than that of a human hair. The particles of this range are able to travel deeply into the respiratory tract of the lungs and cause breathing and allergy problems.

As per the WHO recent report, India is home to world’s 14 most polluted cities based on the amount of PM 2.5 found in every cubic metre of air. Among the cities include Kanpur, Faridabad, Varanasi, Gaya, Patna, Delhi, Lucknow, Agra, Muzaffarpur, Srinagar, Gurgaon, Jaipur, Patiala and Jodhpur.

Dampening its dream

With India set to become the world’s youngest country where the average age by the 2020 will be 29 per cent and 64 per cent of the population falling in the bracket of working age, the severe health risks to the workforce driving the country’s economic progress cannot be ignored which otherwise would dampen its ‘New India’ dream.

A push for bringing fleet of electric buses, increasing number of buses, improved public transportation, promoting non-motorised transport and effective dealing with construction and road dust are some of the measures that require quick implementation. But are these steps enough?

Effective Implementation of Laws

The National Clean Air Programme is required to have strong legal back up under any Act making it mandatory for the cities and regions to implement plans and schemes of the programme to achieve the set aims in a time bound manner. Also, it needs to be ensured that the concerned ministries work in coordination and national programmes are converged to meet the targets and objectives.

Achieving air pollution reduction target will require states and cities to adopt stringent action with detailed plan for clean energy, waste and dust management and improved public transport system with multi-layered accountability and responsibility.

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National Green Tribunal (NGT) has been playing its role in effective implementation of environment laws, but respective governments at the Centre and in the states need to play their role effectively to minimise the burden on the tribunal to deal with such cases. 102 cities have already started to prepare their action plans following the NGT order for reduction of air pollution.

Quick transition to electric mobility, timely implementation of Bharat Stage (BS) VI emission standards and control vehicular pollution on roads, integrated public transport system, increasing infrastructure for cycling, phasing out the old vehicles in a timely manner, reducing dependency of diesel in private vehicles, minimising the vehicles coming out on roads are some of the steps that require immediate action.

Advanced Production Technology & Funding

In the industrial sector, moving towards advanced production technology with minimum environmental burden should be the focus. Dirty fuel emission should be kept under check by respective pollution boards and enforcing strong compliance norms are required.

The National Clean Air Programme also requires a robust funding strategy to meet the costs for sustainability of the schemes running under it. Restructuring budgets and inter-ministerial coordination can ensure better budgeting of the programme. Tough tax regime on polluting products and firms producing them can help funding the programme. Also, revenue can be generated from every diesel vehicle sold for private use to fund clean air programme.

In an attempt to control the increasing pollution levels, the Delhi government experimented with odd-even policy in January 2016. Though it helped in reducing pollution levels, the policy as withdrawn due lack of public support.

Need for Strong Political Will

The electoral mandate is very clear. Acknowledging all the socio-economic parameters, it is time to keep up the promises made by the political parties in the parliamentary elections and come out with concrete measure to deal with the exponentially rising problem. The government will have to deal with the health emergency as the rising air pollution cannot just remain a policy in speeches and paper but requires attention.

The new government at the Centre will have to understand the rising burden due to air toxicity and mobilize the state governments to work in tandem to fight the problem as the risks could be higher considering poverty, poor health, malnutrition and excessive use of technologically inferior quality of fuel.

India has re-elected a strong government at the Centre with high expectations from it on economic and social fronts. But does that mandate indicate towards new politics that can work for urgent need for clean air and improved public health? While depleting air quality across all major cities in the country has disturbed a large section of the electorate, the issue is yet to be seriously addressed at all levels before things get worse.

With new government taking the helm of affairs, the time of reckoning has come that public mandate translates into political will for real action and World Environment Day theme song ‘Hawa Aane De’ on air pollution becomes a reality.

(Author George Cheriyan is the Director and Nimisha Sharma is the Programme Associate at CUTS International)

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