Air Pollution is no local issue
The Delhi government has been forced to roll out impromptu, panicky, and quick-fix measures to contain air pollution in the Capital that has reached a crisis point. The capital is waking up because it is being whipped after having “earned a bad name as the most polluted city in the world”. Its air contains very high levels of carcinogenic toxic chemicals and dust, according to a new IIT-Kanpur study; and thus poses a grave health risk.
Successively, the neighbouring state of UP is altering in the New Year, working hours and timings of schools, shops, factories, and corporate offices in Noida and other suburbs to cut vehicular pollution. These contingent plans and ad hoc actions, such as Delhi’s odd-even car formula, are only transient steps, as observed recently by the Supreme Court.
But, strangely, the rest of India is sitting on a tinderbox ignoring the WHO report’s warnings which have listed 12 of its other cities as the world’s 20 most polluted. It appears that, in the government and bureaucrats’ minds, vehicular emissions through diesel dwells as the dominant factor for air pollution. They have turned a blind eye to the other reasons.
Exceptional vehicular explosion in urban settlements is just one of the crucial determinants of poor air quality. But it is not exclusive. The other key factors in these cities are congested roads leading to traffic jams, use of diesel power generators in markets, burning of waste in the open and dust particles from poor quality roads and construction sites, and also industrial emissions and thermal power plants in some urban settlements.
The focus seems to be only on Outdoor Air Pollution (OAP) in major towns and cities–especially Delhi/NCR. Policy makers seem to be ignorant that India breathes beyond its metros and megacities. Unfortunately, governments have overlooked two important realities. First, Household (indoor) Air Pollution (HAP) poses as big a threat as OAP. Secondly, rural populations, mainly the poor, are excessively affected by HAP.
Despite modernisation, 160 million rural households rely on biomass (fuelwood, twigs, agricultural residue and animal waste) or coal in open fires to prepare daily meals in cook stoves (chulhas) and for heating. Fuelwood dominates (78 percent), followed by dung cakes and crop residues. Most stoves are outdated, only 10 to 12 percent efficient and release toxins such as black soot, carbon dioxide, methane, and other short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs).
Incomplete combustion emits powder-like soot or Black Carbon (BC), a carcinogen which is inhaled by women and their children, causing respiratory disorders. About 400 million people (90 percent of them women) in India are exposed to adverse health impacts associated with HAP from the use of biofuels, resulting in respiratory, pulmonary, and vision problems. HAP can be up to 10 times worse than outdoor air pollution because contained areas enable potential pollutants to build up more than open spaces. Statistics show health effects of indoor air pollution far outweigh those of outdoor air pollution. In terms of health costs, HAP accounts for twice as many lives lost in India and is almost as detrimental to our economy as OAP.
Besides causing harm indoors, smoke from household cooking directly enters the atmosphere, where BC is short-lived (a few days up to a few weeks). Small emissions from cook stoves give Atmospheric Brown Cloud (ABC)--a layer of air pollution containing micro-particulate matters arising from incomplete combustion.
New research shows black carbon is making a much larger contribution to global warming than previously recognised. Scientists say that particles from burning fossil fuels and biomass could be having twice as much warming effect as assessed in past estimates, according to an international study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres.
The Government’s moves to provide modified energy-efficient chulhas (with around 37 percent efficiency—BIS standard) in rural households have yielded limited results due to various reasons: faulty designs, the absence of availability, maintenance, and after-sales service at the village-level, lack of awareness and affordability. In India, there are only 26 city-based manufacturers compared to 6,000 in China. Therefore, women discard them after they become non-functional, and switch back to traditional chulhas.
The Government’s efforts to push cleaner fuels like LPG stoves has led to 22 percent penetration. But, only five percent of the population is using LPG for cooking. Around 17 percent use multiple forms of cooking fuels. A large part of the population in the country prefer stacking fuels such as biomass, firewood, and cow dung besides electricity. They use more than one fuel depending on affordability and availability.
The talks in Paris for a greener and cleaner future around the globe have ended. Pollution is being considered and tackled as a local city-centric issue. Makeshift small-scale schemes are largely unproductive. Unless state governments act in unison to reduce air pollution, India will be unable to breathe freely. The country’s planners ought to design an integrated and comprehensive road map. Pledges and getaways to arrest emissions won’t do. A resilient, concerted action is needed immediately at the national level.
With engineers from premier Indian institutes at the helm of affairs at the Centre and states, one expects concrete and long-term sustainable solutions to the fast-surging burning issue. These technocrats, scientists, and engineers are taking impulsive political decisions and offering unscientific escape routes, rather than digging into enquiries that are scientific. Besides curtailing diesel emissions, reducing smoke from stoves by finding alternate affordable forms of cooking will lead to a valuable reduction in atmospheric pollution. Afforestation and creating green lungs instead of allowing chaotic concrete jungles to mushroom is the other side of the story. Policy makers must address these crying needs immediately.
(K V Venkatasubramanian is an independent journalist. Views expressed are strictly personal)