Managing the increasing air pollution
In a development that has slipped under the radar amidst turbulence on the border, a draft note published by the Ministry of Environment acknowledged the rising number of deaths due to air pollution. As a public health issue, it is imperative to have an informed discussion on the subject of air pollution. A recent report by the World Health Organization found that air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to health. Air pollution is responsible for one in every nine deaths, killing almost three million people in a year. The ministry's recent findings directly contradict its earlier position that there was an "absence" of credible data to establish a link between morbidity and air pollution, as per a report by the Press Trust of India. "Studies across the world and also in India prove that outdoor and indoor air pollution is a serious environmental risk factor that causes or aggravates acute and chronic diseases and has been identified as the fifth highest cause of morbidity in India," the draft note says while quoting a study. These observations form part of the government's draft State of Environment Report (SoER) 2015. The ministry's draft note also cited an Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) report, which detailed a 12% rise in the number of deaths due to surface level ozone and PM 2.5 between 2005 and 2010. During its tenure, the NDA government has acknowledged the menace of air pollution and the danger it poses to public health. Early last year, the Centre asked for health to be the central focus of air pollution control in the country. The recognition of air pollution as a serious health issue was a significant step forward keeping in mind that air pollution control is currently managed and monitored by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change under the Air Act, 1986, which does not even have health risk mitigation as its stated objective. In a column published last year, Anumita Roychowdhury, the Executive Director of the Centre for Science and Environment, hailed the Centre's actions. "Cities are mindlessly monitoring air quality and assessing air pollution sources without linking the exercise with health risk mitigation. A report from the steering committee on air pollution and health-related issues put out a few months ago have brought some sanity in the insane obsession with ambient pollution concentration and the constant fight for determining relative share of pollution sources to the overall ambient pollution concentration. It says very clearly that pollution exposure management is more important from a health standpoint than only management of pollution concentration in the ambient air," she said. When an engine burns diesel, the exhaust it releases contains a mixture of gaseous materials and particulates, which cause cancer and various other diseases. Doctors have told patients with respiratory ailments to leave cities due to poor air quality. The debate surrounding lung cancer in India has only been associated with smoking. Inhalation of diesel fumes from vehicles and generator sets also play a significant part in giving rise to cases of lung cancer and other health ailments, say experts. However, this only covers a few facets of the air pollution problem.
It is safe to suggest that government programs that seek to regulate the menace of air pollution are all steps pointing in the right direction. However, there has been little follow-up, and a classic example of this is the auto fuel policy aimed at reducing vehicular emissions. This is especially the case with regulation over diesel vehicles. Automakers often dodge strict regulations with little punitive action, and with India nearly a decade behind Europe in lowering emission standards, this is indeed a cause for concern. There are similar problems with the way governments deal with industrial emissions. There is a lack of accountability on the part of industries, who often claim that massive investments are required to stick with government sanctioned emission standards. Governments will need to find a way to regulate these industries better. Of course, any discussion on the subject of air pollution is incomplete without talking about waste management. The methods used in India for the large part are rudimentary. Implementing an effective policy to counter this menace comes face to face with a complex bureaucracy, where there are multiple departments with duties that overlap or remain indistinct. Last October, India ratified the Paris Agreement on climate change, which will require wholesale infrastructural advances. Regarding power generation, the NDA government has made a concerted effort in transitioning towards solar energy. Recent studies indicate that India's solar-generation capacity is expected to touch 8.8 gigawatts this year, which marks a jump of 76% over 2016. The target of 100 gigawatts set for 2022 is indeed ambitious, and if achieved it will significantly reduce India's dependence on coal-based energy—a major source of air pollution. The Centre has also made a concerted effort to increase the use the liquid petroleum gas (LPG or cooking gas) gas in poorer households that traditionally use kerosene or biomass. India has gone past Japan as the second largest importer of LPG in the world. In fact, one the government's hallmark initiatives is a drive to provide free cooking gas connections to women from poor households, aimed at reducing the use of polluting fuels. This drive, which began in May, last year, led to a record distribution of 32.5 million new cooking gas connections. The challenge of tackling air pollution is very complex. There are multiple sources—vehicular emissions, industries, poor waste management practices, road dust, brick kilns, biomass-based cooking, kerosene, diesel generators, and crop burning, among others. Our elected representative will require the necessary political will to take on each of these sources, accounting for their exposure risks and the pressing enforceability-related concerns.