Air pollution in India: A nightmare that continues to haunt

Urgent action is needed to tackle multiple sources of pollution, from vehicles to construction to stubble burning.

Published : Nov 09, 2023 17:44 IST - 8 MINS READ

Officegoers in New Delhi wearing masks as dense smog engulfed many parts of the city, with the air pollution level remaining in “severe” category on November 9.

Officegoers in New Delhi wearing masks as dense smog engulfed many parts of the city, with the air pollution level remaining in “severe” category on November 9. | Photo Credit: MOORTHY RV

I am writing this on November 5, and winter is yet to set in. But both the Mumbai Metropolitan Region and north India are poisoned with highly polluted air. This happens year after year and will continue ad nauseam unless the government gets its act together.

First, let us look at the major sources of pollution. Not necessarily in order of priority, but these top the list of culprits: vehicles, industries, coal-based power plants, construction activities, burning of garbage and other solid matter, loss of greenery.

Second, let us look at the multiple agencies set up to deal with these issues: the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEFCC); the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB); State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs); a plethora of planning authorities such as the BMC, TMC, MMRDA, CIDCO, NMMC, MHADA, and BPT (in and around Mumbai alone); the Transport Commissioners, the Metro Authorities, the Railways, the public bus transport authorities, and so on. Each has its own role to play. What is unfortunate is the fact that in practice almost all of them fail to do what they were set up to do. Given that air pollution is not limited by administrative boundaries, the problem becomes even more complex. More about this later.

Also Read | Mumbai in a haze: Pollution hits alarming levels

Third, let us look at the role of the judiciary. With the best of intentions, our courts have failed to tackle the challenge. There are several complex court orders issued by the Supreme Court, the Bombay and Delhi High Courts, and the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that are obviously not being implemented. There are many reasons for this—the orders are complex, not easy to understand, and sometimes contradictory. The judges are obviously not experts and tend to rely on the recommendations of “expert committees” that are often packed with consultants and officers who have failed to discharge their duties. The NGT is supposed to have expertise, but sadly most technical experts are forest officers with no expertise, or former members of the MoEFCC, the CPCB, or SPCBs, who, in most cases, have spent entire careers not doing their jobs.

Fourth, let us look at the role of politicians. The Central government launched with great fanfare a National Clean Air Action Plan, which is meant to cover more than 100 cities classified as “non-attainment” cities, that is cities that do not meet the prescribed air quality standards. This, despite the fact that India’s air quality norms are perhaps the laxest in the world, already perhaps 10 times higher than comparable WHO standards.

Fifth, there is a dearth of reliable real-time air quality data. For decades, we have been fed with wrong data. As a former member of an MoEFCC expert committee, I was routinely told that the air quality standards even in Chembur, the infamous gas chamber of Mumbai, were within permissible norms. It was only when the US government started monitoring air quality in Delhi and Mumbai inside their premises that we realised how misleading the CPCB and SPCBs data were. And without reliable on-time data, it is not possible to implement the much-touted Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP). Whilst Delhi has a fairly comprehensive GRAP, Mumbai’s GRAP was prepared in utmost secrecy and is not worth the paper it is written on.

Finally, what seems to be missing is basic common sense. You do not have to be an expert to realise what is wrong. Common citizens may not know technical jargon, but most will know the most troubling source of air pollution in their neighbourhoods.

Vehicular pollution

What are the solutions? As far as vehicular pollution is concerned, improvement in technology is not going to solve the problem. Private vehicles will continue to pollute; even electric vehicles or Bharat Stage VI or CNG vehicles are polluters. The only solution is to get as many private vehicles as possible off the roads and concentrate on improving the quality of public transportation.

You may well ask, how do EVs (electric vehicles) pollute? The answer is simple: the batteries are recharged using electricity generated from coal-based power plants; the rubber particles from the car tyres contribute to particulate emissions; and there is the constant problem of recirculated road dust. What is therefore necessary is to ban all non-essential private vehicles on bad pollution days and make public transport free on those days.

“India’s air quality norms are perhaps the laxest in the world, already perhaps 10 times higher than comparable WHO standards.”

As far as highly polluting industries and coal-based power plants are concerned, there is no logical reason why they should be allowed to operate in highly congested or highly populated areas, particularly if they are more than 25 years old and do not have the best air control technologies in place. Whilst the Delhi government has shut down such plants in Delhi, Mumbai’s power plant merrily continues, along with two refineries and a fertilizer factory, helped with the overt support of the MoEFCC, the CPCB, and the Maharashtra PCB, which have for decades been stating on oath that these units meet all requisite standards.

Workers are seen working in an under-construction building amidst a thick layer of smog engulfing the Shivaji Park area in Dadar, Mumbai. Mumbai’s bane is construction activities and it needs to emulate Delhi by banning all non-essential construction activities on high pollution days.

Workers are seen working in an under-construction building amidst a thick layer of smog engulfing the Shivaji Park area in Dadar, Mumbai. Mumbai’s bane is construction activities and it needs to emulate Delhi by banning all non-essential construction activities on high pollution days. | Photo Credit: ANI

Mumbai’s major bane is construction activities. Thanks to the relaxation in building norms in terms of the permissible built-up area (by 300 per cent to 500 per cent), accompanied by a reduction in premiums that builders have to pay, the entire city has become a construction site. Shockingly, this has been implemented without a carrying capacity study. Besides private builders, there are several infrastructure projects adding to the pollution, such as the disastrous coastal road project, new Metro lines, flyovers, bridges, and so on. Who will regulate the regulators?

We also need to remember that pollution from construction activities is not confined to the construction sites: it spills into the already congested roads, particularly those blocked for Metro construction activity, and onto pavements, which are blocked with sand, trucks, and cement mixers. Ready-Mix Concrete plants, blithely operating in residential areas, are another major source of pollution. Construction debris is another huge contributor to pollution. Mumbai needs to emulate Delhi and ban all non-essential construction activities on high pollution days.

Contentious issues

There is no reason why one must demand or permit the bursting of firecrackers or the burning of garbage and solid wastes in highly polluted urban environments. What is needed is the strict enforcement of this ban. Sadly, even this is missing.

Similarly, the greed of our builders and decision-makers has allowed the indiscriminate destruction of greenery and green spaces. Every single tree is important and irreplaceable. And every square centimetre of green space must be protected from devilopment. The so-called approach of planting 10 trees for every tree cut down or even tree transplantations are exercises in futility; they do not work in practice and in no way address localised air pollution. Smog towers are another bad joke: they just do not work. And why on earth would you cut a tree and replace it with a smog tower?

Stubble burning is another highly contentious issue across north India. The solution is simple, but it is inextricably entwined in politics. Simply speaking, a well-intentioned attempt to conserve water has become an air pollution nightmare. Coupled with the wrong choice of crops and the lack of financial incentives for other crops, this nightmare will continue.

Mumbai has one of the most efficient and affordable public transportation systems in the world; suburban trains are the city’s lifeline. Yet, for rather obvious reasons, rather than upgrading this network, the government spends tens of thousands of crores on Metros, which are over-delayed, over budget, and unaffordable. Even the first operational Metro I project—one heavily utilisable since it is a badly needed east-west connector—is in deep financial trouble.

Also Read | India’s Air-pocalypse: Understanding the air pollution crisis in Delhi and beyond

We have also forgotten the lessons we learnt from the COVID lockdown. Working from home, shutting down construction because there were no workers, the absence of non-essential private vehicles on the streets. What did we get? Blue skies in winter.

Obviously, implementing these will lead to financial losses. It will impact industries such as construction and coal-based thermal power plants. Builders will, of course, recover losses by hiking rates or asking for more tax breaks. But the country will benefit in terms of health, longevity, and a better quality of life. Since the loss of GDP because of air pollution has been estimated to be as high as 3 per cent, this will not actually be a very high price to pay. Perhaps we can even put in 70 productive hours a week if the air quality improves! The bottom line is that we need to do whatever needs to be done as a top priority.

One of the most difficult tasks is to get government agencies to work. And to get them all to work in tandem is almost impossible. This is further complicated by politics. What we need is statesmanship, which inspires governments at all levels to work together. If we believe that will always be a dream, we will continue to die in this nightmare.

Debi Goenka is executive trustee of Conservation Action Trust in Mumbai. For lack of space, this article dispenses with technical and legal jargon. And devilopment has not been misspelt.

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