The recent study “The Lancet Commission on pollution and health” throws up alarming figures for India. According to it, pollution resulted in 2.5 million deaths in India in 2015—the highest anywhere in the world. The disturbing number underlines the urgent need to address this mounting public health challenge. Experts at Centre for Climate Change and Environmental Health (CCCEH) at the International Institute Of Health Management Research (IIHMR) Delhi stress that with the rising pollution-related death toll, India can no longer afford to lose time in tackling the problem. CCCEH, in fact, has been created to integrate over two decades of expertise related to environment and health to accelerate evidence-based policy recommendations. There is a need to identify the main sources of air pollution through specialised research, and address the problem through innovative and targeted approaches.
While solutions like shutting down power plants, introducing traffic restrictions like the Delhi government’s ‘odd even scheme’, and even the recent cracker sales ban during Diwali appear well-intentioned, but the fact is that India’s battle against pollution needs much more than such ad hoc, knee-jerk reactions that end up working as mere window-dressing for the problem. Gauging the precise impact of air pollution on health needs intensive research, on how air pollution affects not just the lungs, but different organs of the body. The evidence available in this regard is more than adequate to formulate a well-targeted action plan at the earliest. Ultimately, the key to arriving at solutions to these issues lies in inter-sectoral action for health. The health sector is just one of the players in this our fight against air pollution. Local bodies like municipalities, and state and central governments need to work in tandem against this public health challenge, since pollutants travel long distances, beyond administrative, geographical and national boundaries.
The sources of air pollution are varied: industry and brick kilns, transport vehicles, diesel generators, domestic fuel, road dust, crop burning, among others. The government has installed air-quality monitors at different locations for outdoor air assessment. Since air pollution levels vary from location to location, increasing the number of monitors will result in better assessment. Information related to these monitors is easily available on websites like SAFAR-India and AQICN, as well as through mobile apps that are freely downloadable. These offer indicators on both particle matter constituents like PM10, PM2.5 and lead, and gaseous components such as ozone, ammonia, NO2, SO2 and CO. These determine the National Air Quality Index, a system of air quality assessment that enables comparison across sites and time possible.
Amongst these, it is PM2.5—the 2.5-micron and smaller particles—that can permeate the lung lining and move into the blood stream. It can lead to not only to respiratory problems such as asthma, but can also increase the risk of heart attacks, dementia, diabetes and possibly even depression. It is crucial to understand the adverse impact of air pollution on human health. Priorities for pollution abatement often do not take into account its long-term health impact. Air pollution also makes children prone to obesity and cognition deficits. It can adversely affect pregnant women too, resulting in low birth weight and premature births which are already high and leading cause of high infant mortality in India. As the urgency for putting in place effective solutions gathers momentum, it is critical to prioritise options in the local context, particularly since resources are always limited. Basic management approaches such as the Pareto principle show that efficient priority setting can ensure significant results through optimal use of available resources.
A classic example is Delhi, which was till recently the most polluted amongst 1,600 cities, according to a WHO ranking. An IIT Kanpur report brought out that only 30% of the pollution in Delhi is from local sources, while a staggering 70% is traced to sources outside the city, including the NCR and beyond, and Punjab and Haryana. Delhi’s Graded Response Action Plan is a step in the right direction but needs to be fine-tuned further. The plan envisages a series of measures depending on the level of pollution in the city, ranging from information dissemination measures at the lowest level, to curbing construction activity and even closing schools at the highest level. In addition, abatement strategies that can yield tangible results in the short-term include regulating the movement of heavy commercial vehicles. They should be kept outside the NCR. For this, the Western and Eastern Expressway bypasses need to be completed on an urgent basics and non-polluting modes of transport need to be increasingly adopted.
An effective measure would be curtailing the use of solid fuel in households. Found in abundance in rural areas surrounding Delhi, it is relevant to point out that emissions from this one source alone account for 25-50% of fine particles, according to an article published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. While schemes like the Ujjwala Yojana the ‘Give it Up’ subsidy transfer for LPGs are effective measures intended at rapid replacement of solid fuel use, the growing problem of air pollution calls for more sustained efforts. The expected health benefits of these initiatives need to be assessed on a continuing basis.
Another major source of air pollution, crop burning, has to be replaced with measures that are affordable and can benefit small farmers too. Pollution from industry and brick kilns both within the NCR and outside need to be tackled on priority. By not focusing on core issues in the air quality crisis, we are all seeking solutions to the figurative ‘Gordian knot’ without looking at the obvious Alexander the Great approach—cutting straight through the problem.