We are used to seeing rain disrupt play during a cricket match. But in a worrying sign of the times we live in, it was pollution that held up a recent match more than once in the national capital between India and Sri Lanka. Studies that highlight adverse effects of pollution are in the news almost everyday. The latest says it damages children’s brains. Masks are a common sight, sales of air purifiers are rocketing, schools get ‘pollution breaks’ and oxygen chambers could well be the new cafés. Amid all this, when the powers that be—in this case, Union environment minister Harsh Vardhan—say that “to attribute any death to a cause like pollution may be too much”, we are left gasping, quite literally. What we get in answer to policy to tackle pollution are half-baked schemes like odd-even and a lot of noise over things like stubble burning. Yes, there are measures to check stubble burning and polluting industries. But where is the implementation? Earlier this year, the environment ministry notified a ‘Graded Response Action Plan’ to combat air pollution in Delhi-NCR and the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) was given responsibility for implementing it. However, even EPCA chairperson Bhure Lal feels implementation is the key. “If people (agencies) don’t implement things, the situation will get out of hand,” he had said at the Indian Express’ Idea Exchange programme. The push for electric vehicles is a step in the right direction, but that is a target 13 years down the line and that, too, if everything goes to plan. Pollution levels in other cities should be a wake-up call for the Centre that it is not a problem restricted to NCR. A study by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC-India) found the annual concentration of major pollutant, PM2.5, or particles with a diameter less than 2.5 micrometers, to be more in Gurugram, Kanpur, Lucknow and Faridabad. In fact, in terms of “severe plus” air quality, nine of the top 10 most polluted cities were ahead of Delhi. Gaya, Muzaffarpur, Patna and Agra are just some examples. The Lancet Countdown 2017 says air pollution claimed as many as 2.5 million lives in India in 2015—the highest in the world. Of the 1.9 million deaths across 21 Asian countries in 2015, 5,24,680 deaths—one in every four—were in India. Of these, at least 1,24,207 were from PM2.5 air pollution at homes, 80,368 from coal power plants and 50,905 from transport.
In a report by the United Nations Environment Programme, some 12.6 million people die in a year due to pollution, of which 6.5 million deaths are due to air pollution. This means one in nine people die due to pollution and one in four due to air pollution specifically. India and China account for 40% of pollution-related deaths. Exposure to lead in paint causes brain damage to six lakh children annually. Our seas already contain 500 “dead zones” with too little oxygen to support marine life. Over 80% of the world’s waste water is released into the environment without treatment, poisoning fields where we grow our food and the lakes and rivers that provide drinking water to 300 million people. There is also a huge economic cost. A recent report by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health says welfare losses due to pollution are estimated at over $4.6 trillion each year, equivalent to 6.2% of global economic output. The alarming figures call for immediate and harsh measures and not the reactionary responses we have been seeing. Implementation of bans has to be total and strict. A leaf can be taken from China’s book, which realised the gravity of the problem and has now implemented various measures and initiatives at multiple levels at tackle pollution. Ironically, experts feel India has a better chance than China to tame pollution, given its democratic nature and considerably less industrial waste. Also, more than policy measures, there is a concerted need for public awareness, for which the government needs to mobilise NGOs and citizens alike.
What to expect in 2018
At a UN Environment Assembly held in Nairobi in early December, the world committed to a pollution-free planet, with a pledge to prevent, mitigate and manage pollution in all its forms. The assembly also passed resolutions that include moves to address marine litter and microplastics, prevent and reduce air pollution, cut out lead poisoning from paint and batteries, protect water-based ecosystems, deal with soil pollution, and manage pollution in areas hit by conflict and terrorism. If all these promises are met, 1.49 billion more people will breathe clean air, 480,000 km (or around 30%) of the world’s coastlines will be clean, and $18.6 billion for research and development and innovative programmes to combat pollution will come online. “The science we have seen at this assembly shows we have been so bad at looking after our planet that we have very little room to make more mistakes,” said Edgar Gutiérrez, president of the 2017 UN Environment Assembly. “With the promises made here, we are sending a powerful message that we will listen to the science, change the way we consume and produce, and tackle pollution in all its forms across the globe.”
As for India, Eric Solheim, director of United Nations Environment Programme, said, “India is going to be the most populous country, the fastest-growing economy in the world soon and has a huge role in dealing with the problem of pollution.” At the governmental level, a high-level taskforce was set up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in November to tackle pollution, especially in the NCR, which aims to make the winter of 2018 pollution-free. Among the measures likely to be implemented include encouraging industrial use of wheat and paddy straw and bagass to avoid stubble burning. Coal-based power plants might be shut down and use of sprinklers and introduction of electric buses are other options on the table. On a micro level, oxygen chambers, such as the one started by private company Nurturing Green in Gurugram, is a start. Annu Grover, founder, Nurturing Green, however, accepts the limitations of such chambers when it comes to catering to a gargantuan population that is battling with pollution, saying, “It is a solution to pollution, but not a permanent cure.”