For nearly the entire past decade -- every year from early November onwards -- Delhi and much of North India faces a familiar challenge of worsening air quality, which badly impacts everyone and everyday life. The manifestation of the rising air pollution includes an increase in visits to doctor’s clinics and temporary closure of primary schools and sometimes even secondary schools. This also brings it to prime-time TV, leading newspaper headlines and office discussions. These discourses are often so similar and generic that if one by mistake picks up a news report from an earlier year or a television clip from one of past years, one might easily think it is from the current news cycle.
In late October 2023, the worsening air quality in Mumbai made headlines. Then, in early November 2023, the Delhi air quality became severe, many days before the day of Diwali. The Central government ritualistically enforced the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP). The schools were ordered to temporarily shut. The so-called “odd-even” car rationing curbs had been planned in Delhi and offices were shifted to partial capacity. The paddy stubble burning and farm fires were already making news from Punjab and Haryana.
The fact is air quality in most north Indian districts is nearly similar and in the category of poor, if not worse. It is just that the majority of those cities and the states do not measure sufficiently, and that’s why we do not know enough about them.
By now, the adverse impact of air pollution on human health is widely known and well recognised. Complex terms such as AQI, or Air Quality Index, have entered household use. However, much of this awareness and understanding has not resulted in the necessary action. The PM2.5 and PM10 and other air pollutants are associated with multiple health conditions, which affects nearly every organ of the body. Air pollution worsens the health of people with pre-existing respiratory conditions, such as people who are asthmatic or have a pre-existing respiratory or lung disease. Air pollutants are causative contributory factors in heart attack, stroke, diabetes mellitus and even cancer. Air pollution affects the cognitive development in children and is associated with chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. It is often quoted that breathing in severe air quality is equivalent to smoking 10 to 15 cigarettes in a day.
The key pollutant PM 2.5, or particulate matter of 2.5 micron or less, has a WHO permissible limit of 15 microgram per cubic meter for 24 hours. In India, the permissible limit is 40, which is already nearly three-fold of WHO standards for PM2.5. On most of the clean air days -- around the year, Indian cities have PM2.5 levels higher than WHO norms. In winter months, even the Indian standards for both PM2.5 and AQI are crossed by many degrees. On certain days, such as in the immediate post-Diwali period, at many places it was up to 100-fold of the recommended limit.
The situation is worrying as this continues to happen in spite of public discourse and repeated political commitments to tackle the challenge. Also, the bursting of firecrackers on Diwali continues despite the Supreme Court having banned the bursting of firecrackers. This Diwali 2023, the bursting of firecrackers brought the air quality to AQI levels worse than Diwali 2022, and the AQI on November 13, the day after Diwali, was nearly double of the AQI level a day before Diwali.
It seems that at many levels, our approach to air pollution has become one of indifference, and to a large extent certain people have started the rationalisation of poor AQI in Indian cities. For example, many argue that air pollution is an unavoidable outcome of economic growth. They forget that many countries have achieved good economic status and also keep their air clean.
There are many strong arguments for keeping air quality better, even from an economic growth perspective. The poor quality and related health conditions results in increased worker absenteeism and reduced workforce output, and thus adversely impacting economic growth. This also results in individual and state-level health expenditures.
There is an economic impact of air pollution. A Reserve Bank of India report from the department of economic policy and research estimated that by 2030, due to labour hour losses due to climate change, upto 4.5 per cent of India’s GDP could be hit. The annual cycle of the closure of manufacturing units, construction and services hubs and people not coming out to buy things are added to this list. The same was estimated in other reports, including a June 2023 World Bank study. A Dalberg report estimated that air pollution costs Indian businesses close to $95 billion annually, which affects around three per cent of the country’s GDP. Two-thirds of the world’s 30 worst polluted cities are in India. A higher PM2.5 level in any city results in a higher per capita economic loss for that city. Clearly, given India’s economic losses, we should urgently consider taking action to improve air quality.
The need for clean air is well recognized. India launched a national clean air programme in 2019. The aim has been to reduce PM2.5 and PM10 levels by 20-30 per cent by 2024, against the base year of 2017. It has a wide range of appropriate suggestions, such as reduction in vehicular pollution through regulatory norms, tackling industrial emission, improvement in roads and bridges; better monitoring of air quality and prevention and control of paddy stubble-burning.
A lot has been discussed and understood in the last decade to tackle the challenge and improve air quality. Most Indian cities and states such as Delhi have prepared GRAP, which is enforced. However, the approach is too late and too little responding to the challenge. What is done is very much akin to shutting the stable door after the horse has already bolted. Everything which needs to be done is known. However, what is required is that action for keeping air clean have to be taken around the year, with mid- to short-term planning, and sufficiently funded. It also requires citizens’ participation and government accountability. The regulation and enforcement of regulatory measures in this area should be more stringent.
Two days before Diwali, it was not government intervention but that of nature, which some much-needed rain, which slightly improved the air quality from severe to poor. However, Mother Nature cannot come to the rescue every time. We need to act, and act fast.