India is one of the fastest growing economies of today and has seen the many beautiful faces of growth and development. But this growth has also revealed its various obvious and unobvious pitfalls. One of these ‘pitfalls’ is the growing levels of air pollution in the country. According to the WHO, India is now home to the 14 most polluted cities in the world. Over the past 3 years, the capital, New Delhi has transformed from being India’s green oasis to a city clouded with smog. However, it is not only the capital that is experiencing a surge in air pollution. A study conducted by a team of international scientists and experts from IIT Bombay suggested that both rural and urban parts of the country indicate roughly the same levels of pollution. What started out to be a localized struggle against pollution, has turned into an urgent national concern.
This increase in air pollution can be attributed to a number of contributing factors. India’s economic growth and development has not only been driven by the IT and service sector, but also by the promotion of basic manufacturing industries to cater for India’s large low skilled worker population. But an increase in coal powered factories and construction in rural and urban areas does more than just create jobs, it also contributes to air contamination. The agricultural sector too has been a major irritant. Many farmers in the country still follow the ‘slash and burn’ technique to prepare their fields for the new harvesting season because it is quick and cheap. The crop burning sends large clouds of smoke to its neighboring areas, often as far as distant cities, as seen in the case of Delhi. According to a study done by IIT Kanpur, Delhi’s air quality can be improved by 90 percent if crop burning is eliminated. The study also found that another big sources of air pollution was residential biomass burning - people burning cow dung or using fire for cooking. Furthermore, the growth of the middle class in India has meant that far more people are buying cars. This increase in the number of vehicles on the road and inadequate policing of emission standards have also been nails in the coffin.
The talk of coffins gives way to the issue of why the air pollution in India is more than an environmental concern. Air pollution in the country has now emerged as a major health issue that has contributed to rising cases of cancer and respiratory diseases amongst non-smokers. The number of lung cancer cases amongst non-smokers today, is greater than the number seen amongst smokers. According to the World Bank, health-care fees and productivity losses from pollution costs India approximately 8.5 percent of its GDP. At its current size, this works out to be around $221 billion every year. The pay-off of economic growth and job opportunities for the people seems to be increased trips to hospital and a stack of fat bills.
The government has however shifted gear from a reactionary approach to the issue to a precautionary one. In July 2016, all non-attainment cities were given 42 action points to improve air quality and 94 cities were asked to prepare detailed action plans to reduce pollution. Prime Minister Modi had announced earlier that India will aim to abolish the use of plastic by the year 2022. Moreover, the government is making attempts to promote affordable solar power to industries and household and subsidies for a range of machines that would prevent farmers from burning their fields. At the India Solar Alliance earlier this year, PM Modi stated that by 2022, India will generate 175 GW of renewable energy of which 100 GW will be solar power, out of which 20 GW have already been installed. The government is also focusing on stricter and better emission standards within the country. An early warning system before pollution spikes and preventive measures such as increased frequency in the deployment of road sweeping machines have been introduced. Most importantly however, has been the formulation of the National Clean Air Programme. This is the first strategic plan to address air pollution on the national level and will be funded with Rs 637 crore. The main features of this programme are city-specific air pollution abatement action increase in the number of monitoring stations, efficiency in data collection and dissemination, incorporating public participation in planning and implementation of plan. Majority of the responsibility to implement this framework is given to the state governments with specific deadlines to achieve its objective. The programme also addresses rural and urban causes such as crop burning, biomass burning, vehicle emissions and coal as power sources for industries.
Air pollution in India has evolved to be a serious national concern and calls for urgent action from both the government and its citizens. The challenge ahead for the citizens and government of India will be to stay committed to the vision and implementation of the National Clean Air Programme in the long term. The administration must take the enforcement of the programme seriously, while the people must recognize the need to engage with the government in regards to the specifics of the programme.