The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a measure of the purity of air, the lower the level of AQI, the better the quality of air, and as it increases, it becomes more and more dangerous for consumption by most forms of life. As per the World Health Organisation’s Breathe Life initiative that aims at clean air for all by 2030, citizens of India are being slowly poisoned by the air they breathe. India is home to some of the most polluted cities in the world. For example, residents of Mumbai face 6.4 times worse air quality than permissible, while Delhi is 14.3 times worse than what it should be. At these AQI levels healthy people will face discomfort, and people with weaker lungs or heart will be severely impacted. Children, elderly, and the sick, are likely to feel worse off than the rest. There is damage not just to health, and well being but damage to the economy due to shutting down industries and transportation for fears of exacerbating the pollution levels – cumulative losses in 2013 were around $5 trillion dollars. Given that growth is accompanied by pollution, the billion-dollar question is how do countries like India grow, at the same time as assuring breathable air to its citizens?
Toxic Capital Of India
How bad is bad when it comes to the Air Quality Index? The American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not measure AQI over 500, declaring that at level there ought to be “Health warning of emergency conditions: everyone is more likely to be affected”. Parts of Delhi are hovering around an AQI of 600, while in the last two years it regularly topped 999. This figure is not an exceptional spurt of bad air quality, but the norm during winter months. At an AQI of 300+ western countries declare an emergency. At 999, most of Delhi is still out and about, especially the large population of daily wage workers. A recent WHO report “Air pollution and child health: prescribing clean air” makes for frightening reading. It looks not just at the fatalities caused by poor air quality – about 100,000 children die in India each year simply because the air is unbreathable - but also at the permanent health damage to children who survive. The five leading causes of death among children are all linked to poor air quality.
Earlier this month the WHO held the first ever conference on air pollution and health, that looked at deteriorating air quality worldwide. With the WHO declaring clean air to be a basic human right, India has a special challenge that she faces. How do you lift millions of people out of poverty, and put them on the path to development while controlling pollution?
The Vital Steps That Are Required
The first and most important step is to move away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. The BP energy outlook pegs India’s demand for energy as having risen by 165 percent. However, while the demand in renewable energy grew by 1409 percent, even in 2030, 82 percent of our fuel requirements are likely to be met by fossil fuels. Another important fuel source in the mix is nuclear power plants that are more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels but can have other issues associated with It such as radiation related illnesses including cancer.
The second step is to move over to electric vehicles on a war footing. As India grows, so does the demand for vehicles. Be it two wheelers or four, be it heavy goods vehicles, or tractors – the move away from petrol and diesel must be affected. At one level it will aid our balance of payments, at the other it will go some way in mitigating the pollution problem. Niti Ayog had indicated that by 2030 all vehicles would be EV; but that seems to be more an announcement than a road map. In more recent months this has been pared down to 30 percent of all vehicles. Yet the 360 degree policy required to ensure this, seems not to be in place. If we look at China and its EV car policy, there just seems to be so much more work and implementation in place, than it is here. If the Modi government is serious about EV cars replacing fossil fuel cars, then it needs to take a leaf out of the Chinese book and go full steam ahead.
And lastly various central, state, and local government authorities must implement pollution control measures that already exist, without fear or favour. Right now, it is not that the laws or regulations for a less polluted environment do not exist. They are flouted. Be it by industry that is emitting noxious fumes and effluents into our atmosphere or water; or farmers who burn crop waste in their fields to prepare for the next year’s harvest – they must be dealt with an iron hand. But, with the iron hand there need to be subsidies, and incentives that work with the industrial and agricultural communities, and move them away from pollution.
Right now, there is no disincentive to pollute, while the profits from polluting are huge. The government must work with all its layers to ensure that this is reversed. Else we are looking at long periods of shutdown of the economy and daily life, simply because the air is too polluted to breathe.
Harini Calamur writes on politics, gender and her areas of interest are the intersection of technology, media, and audiences.
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