Toxic trouble

The extreme peril of air pollution can be tackled effectively only if all of us join hands to find solutions that work on the ground

Heart-wrenching images of people gasping for oxygen on deathbeds have been ingrained in our minds even if we want to delete the Coronavirus tragedy from our memory. What has not registered as starkly is the fatal role played by air pollution in exacerbating the toll taken by the pandemic.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, is primarily a respiratory infection and it damages the lungs in severe cases. Epidemiological studies suggest that exposure to air pollution makes people more vulnerable to severe and more lethal forms of the virus. That’s the here and now, but the increasingly toxic air the world breathes is to blame for much worse.

Arnab Mandal

Arnab Mandal is a senior member of the analytics, insights and impact team at Tata Trusts

According to the State of Global Air 2020 report, air pollution was the fourth leading risk factor globally for early deaths in 2019, surpassed only by high blood pressure, tobacco use and poor nutrition. A total of 6.67 million deaths in the year were attributable to air pollution, the report added. India, in particular, has been hit badly by the toxic attack.

It’s no surprise, then, that Switzerland-based IQAir has nine Indian cities on its list of the world’s top ten most polluted cities (and 13 in the top 15). There’s more damning evidence: India recorded some 1.7 million premature deaths from air pollution in 2019, according to a report by the Clean Air Fund, and a study published in Lancet in 2018 stated that the country carries 32% of the global burden of severe respiratory diseases. The economic cost of air pollution in India is estimated to be $150 billion, or 5.4% of the GDP.

Researchers at the University of Chicago have concluded that air pollution shortens the average Indian’s life expectancy by 6.3 years, relative to what it would be if World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines were met, and 3.4 years relative to what it would be if air pollution were reduced to our own national standard. These numbers would have been grimmer had the researchers gone by WHO’s revised guidelines on air quality (released in September 2021).

Where’s the attention?

Despite such deadly statistics, air pollution hardly gets the attention it deserves and not even in Delhi, the country’s capital, which inhales some of the worst air in the world. The usual suspects are to blame: vehicle exhaust fumes, fossil fuel-based energy generation, polluting industries, construction activity, diesel gensets and the burning of waste and crop residue or stubble, during the harvest season. Little wonder that Delhi’s denizens got accustomed to wearing face masks much before Covid struck.

Solutions have been suggested and discussed but to no avail. The problem of air pollution in India is entangled in myriad policy measures that often make things complicated and have little effect on the ground. Since existing state agencies had failed to deliver results, the central government formed the Commission for Air Quality Management in the National Capital Region (NCR) and Adjoining Areas, in the hope that it would come up with resolutions in collaboration with the state governments of Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Delhi and its adjoining regions were the focus, and with good reason. The NCR has witnessed numerous policy and other interventions, among them the National Clean Air Programme, the odd-even formula for taking out cars, anti-smog water guns, switching off diesel gensets in residential colonies, newer standards for petrol and diesel cars, and encouraging the use of electric vehicles (EVs).

The thrust in all of this is improving ambient air quality. EVs offer a bit of respite here. Delhi has more than 12 million registered vehicles and the transport sector is the main source of toxic emissions. EVs come with a lot of promise but it will take some time for adequate infrastructure to be set up and for market adoption to reach a promising point.

Philippines solution

It is important to look for innovative ways of curbing air pollution. An effective solution has been tried out in the Philippines, where a small vehicular device called a carbon cutter has been piloted. This not only cuts emission by more than 65% but also delivers fuel savings of 15%-20%.

Project HARIT (harnessing the power of agricultural residues through innovative technologies), funded by the Tata Trusts and implemented by the Nature Conservancy (India), is another example of an innovative solution. Here the problem addressed is stubble burning in Punjab and it is done using the ‘Happy Seeder’ technology and by promoting no-burn practices.

Solutions such as these can go a long way in tackling the catastrophic risks posed by air pollution. How well a country can fare on this front will determine the progress it makes in achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In absolute terms, India is the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases (after China and the United States) in the world. It is important to reiterate that if India fails to meet its SDG targets, the world would fail as well. This requires collaboration and joint action involving governments, the corporate sector, philanthropies, nonprofits and people in general. All of us have a responsibility to put our shoulder to this wheel and to expend every breath we take to make a difference.

Fire service personnel spray water to check dust pollution in Delhi