Air Pollution: While the problem is solvable and has been resolved to some extent in the developed world, there are several challenges in India in this regard.
By Sumit Sharma
Air pollution, in its invisible form, is slowly and steadily impacting the growth of India. Be it human health, agricultural productivity, buildings, or climate change, air pollution has severely impacted several aspects of human society. The alarmingly high levels of air pollution in Delhi are quite well known, but lesser known are the other cities (like Patna, Hissar, Dhanbad, Amritsar, Jalandhar, etc.,) were the levels are not so less too. About 70-80% cities in India violate the prescribed standards and several of them exceed them by more than 100%.
There are variety of sources like transport, industries, power plants, biomass, construction, road dust etc., which contribute to the problem. Other than the particles released from these sources, gases like SO2, NOx, VOCs and ammonia emitted by them also react in atmosphere to form secondary particulates and other secondary pollutants like ozone, which make significant contributions.
While the problem is solvable and has been resolved to some extent in the developed world, there are several challenges in India in this regard. The three broad challenges which drive most of the issues in the area of air pollution control are discussed below. The most important challenge is the limited use of scientific tools for decision making and planning. Most air quality management plans, which are being prepared for control of pollution in non-attainment cities are not based on source apportionment studies and hence even if they are fully implemented, they do not ensure achievement of air quality standards.
Moreover, unscientific planning can lead to waste of time, and resources. Presently, there are air quality models which can satisfactorily predict air pollution values and their source contributions, based on which informed and resource optimal decisions can be taken.
These models not just predict the primary pollutants but can also effectively estimate secondary pollutants formed, and hence are useful in simulating the dynamics in the atmosphere. Other than long term air quality management planning, these models can also be used for short term forecasts and emergency response planning.
The next important challenge in context of air pollution is of the enforcement of standards. There are several sectoral emission control norms and standards which are in place but proper enforcement remains a concern. Vigilance and emission monitoring of industries is questionable especially considering the huge number of industries and limitations of manpower in the regulatory agencies.
Similarly, there are laws in place to prohibit burning of refuse and agricultural residues, however, rampant burning is observed in these sectors, depicting issues with enforcement. Although, type approval tests are conducted in labs to ensure that vehicular models remain within the prescribed emission limits, however, real world emissions from vehicles have been found to be much higher than the lab conditions. The older vehicles are required to go through the pollution under control (PUC) certification, which is also not functioning adequately. Only about one-third of vehicles in Delhi were found to be going for PUC testing.
Moreover, there are issues of equipment calibration, inadequate testing and real world emissions of these older vehicles. Overloading of vehicles, and illegal use of unregistered vehicles is also seen which can be eliminated with improved enforcement mechanisms. Most of the enforcement mechanism are manual and hence become difficult to cater to the huge demand in India.
Technological support should be explored to stringently enforce air pollution laws in the country. This can be done through the use of satellite based tools, remote sensing based vehicular inspections, continuous monitoring equipments, use of IT applications for public vigilance etc. With this, there is also a need to strengthen the capacity of the regulatory agencies like SPCBs in financial, manpower and technical terms. This will require enhanced allocation of resources to the regulatory agencies.
Above all, an important challenge which remains is the level of importance and attention given to the issue. This has clear linkages with the public awareness levels and their demands for better air quality. In Delhi and some of the other big cities, the overall awareness levels on the issue seem to have gone up, however, not so the case in rest of the country. Lack of awareness about air pollution and its impacts leads to non-prioritization of the issue which eventually lead to lack in political will and budgetary allocations required for control. Raising public awareness levels is the key which can be done by improving the air quality monitoring network and wider dissemination of the air quality information.
Sensitisation of stakeholders on relevant emission control issues is important to make them aware of the alternative options. Behavior change communication techniques need to be employed for seeking change in habits leading to energy conservation and emission control.
The three challenges, if tackled, can bring tremendous benefits to individual sectors, community and nation. Scientific and optimal air quality management planning can pin-pointedly address the issues and save time and resources in different sectors. Reduced air pollution concentrations in a city can immensely improve the health status of the residents and also their productivity.
Improved agricultural productivity for farmers, reduced energy consumption for industries can lead to significant economic benefits. The co-benefits of reduced air pollution on climate, buildings and ecology are additional but immense. By addressing air pollution, India can become a leader in addressing short-lived climate pollutants and hence contributing to the global cause.
(The author is Director, Earth Science and Climate Change, TERI. Views expressed are personal.)