Will India’s National Clean Air Program scare away pollution?

पाम ऑयल मिशन को लेकर नॉर्थ-ईस्ट में उपजी आशंकाएं

“हमसे कोई सलाह-मशविरा नहीं लिया गया। नॉर्थ ईस्ट में पाम ऑयल मिशन ठीक नहीं है क्योंकि मेघालय में हम आदिवासियों का जीवन...

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-4.2 million deaths a year as a result of exposure to ambient (outdoor) air pollution.
-3.8 million deaths every year because of exposure to smoke from dirty cookstoves and fuels within households.
-91percent of the world’s population lives in places where air quality exceeds WHO guideline limits.

Some scary statistics from the report on air pollution released by World Health Organization(WHO).

The report puts India under one of the most polluted countries in the world. It also puts New Delhi, Jaipur, Srinagar, Kanpur, Lucknow, Agra, Faridabad and Patna under the list of top 20 polluted cities in the world.

These numbers and stats should not surprise us. The last few years have been marked by the dangerous levels of smog in the northern parts of the country. The situation was so grim, in the last winters that the prevalent smog was referred to as “National Emergency”. It was then that the government and other stakeholders decided to come together to combat the air pollution. One leap forward in the direction is the National Clean Air Program draft prepared by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF)which dedicates a total budget of Rs 637 crore for monitoring air pollution among other checks. The government has also invited public comments on the draft.

The draft proposes putting up 691 Manual Monitoring Stations in 303 cities which would be in addition to the existing 4000 cities in the country. It also calls for ‘Identification of alternative technology for real-time monitoring of the air pollution levels in the city’.

Central Pollution Control Board is to steer the process of identifying, developing and validating alternative cost-effective technology for source and combined air quality monitoring in consultation with Indian Institute of Technology, Centre for Social and Environmental Reserach and other such institutes.

Air pollution is often seen as an urban phenomenon, but the draft takes some care of rural air pollution as well. Because of heavy use of pesticides, insecticides and stubble burning rural areas have higher levels of air pollution as well. People living in rural areas are as likely to face premature death from effects of poor air quality as those living in cities, suggests a new northern India based study.

As per the draft, 50 monitoring stations will be set up in rural India. Details on how and when the installation will take place however, escape the draft.

This is one of the reasons why a few experts have called the proposals made in the draft as “lofty”. They point out that the mentioned targets to reduce pollution are not time-bound and that there is no clear mechanism for participatory engagement with relevant stakeholders. The draft continues with the existing command-and-control mode of source reductions which have not made any substantial progress till date.

An article in The Indian Express quotes Greenpeace campaigner Sunil Dahiya, “The draft plan does not set any specific targets nor does it lay down specific timelines for implementation of most of the important components”. The clarity has not been established on how the cities where monitoring stations need to install will be selected.

It is also pertinent here to ask that who gets affected the most? In a developing country like India with majority of the population still struggling to afford a decent lifestyle, the poor and the weaker sections will be marred by contaminated air more than anybody else. To quote, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “while air pollution threatens all those who live in a polluted city, the brunt of the burden is mostly borne by those who are the poorest and most marginalized.”

Photo : Money Control

As India attempts cleaning its air with its National Policy for Clean Air it will do well learning from the experiences of the other countries who have done it before. For instance, post-World War II rapid industrialization caused excessive air pollution in United States which had adverse effects on the environment and public health. It was in 1970 that Congress passed the landmark Clean Air Act which yielded drastic positive results.

This seemed like history repeating itself. On December 4, 1952, as London choked with soot resulting in the death of nearly 4000 people in the following days. The United Kingdom government then went on to pass the UK Clean Air Act in 1956. With these guidelines, smokeless zones were introduced in United Kingdom and sulfur dioxide emissions were cut down by controlling various sources of air pollution.

The inward thinking is very much necessary if the government seriously wants to fight pollution. For this to happen, serious investment in research needs to be made so that we have indigenous data on country’s air. The draft too acknowledges the need for more authentic data and studies that will further strengthen our efforts and public participation in improving air quality.

For this a higher apex committee and a working group needs to be setup under the joint chairmanship of Indian Council of Medical Research and MoEF to identify thrust areas in environmental issues.

We know dangers of polluted air do not stop at harming our lungs but, penetrate much further. A recent study conducted with 1293 mothers and their children published in an American health journal claims that children exposed to air pollution are prone to higher risks of elevated blood pressure. Other studies also suggest air pollution can affect humans in many ways and it can cause irreversible damage to the coming generation.

Perhaps seeing the rising concern around air pollution, WHO is holding its First Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health from 30 October – 1 November 2018.

Thus, India seems to have acted timely by inviting comments on the draft on National Clean Air Program and appears to be in sync with global efforts to clean air, although much damage has been done already.


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