What India Could Learn From China On Pollution Control
Delhi’s air is killing its children
By: Neeta Lal
There was a time not long ago when Beijing and New Delhi were rivals for the unappetizing title of the world’s most polluted megacity. Since that time, however, Beijing has taken dramatic steps to clean up its air with an “Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Air Pollution,” featuring well-defined targets to control pollution.
That is hardly the case in Delhi, where an alarming report by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago recently revealed that residents of India’s capital city will die 10 years earlier than they should if current air pollution levels persist. Globally, air pollution reduces 2.2 years of life expectancy, relative to a world that follows the World Health Organization guidelines. But India’s statistic is a disconcerting five times that.
According to the new WHO guidelines, the average annual PM2.5 concentration should be no higher than five micrograms per cubic meter. However, in Delhi, the world’s most polluted capital, this figure is 107 micrograms per cubic meter, or more than 21 times the recommended limit. Breathing in Delhi’s polluted air, adds WHO, is equal to smoking 22 cigarettes a day. Doctors say Delhi’s air is having a devastating impact on citizens’ health, triggering deaths due to cancer, stroke, asthma, and worsening of Covid19 symptoms. Four out of every 10 children in the capital also suffer from severe lung problems.
The EPI study attributes Delhi’s pollution to industrialization, economic development, and population growth over the past two decades triggering skyrocketing energy demand and fossil fuel consumption. Delhi also suffers from what a University of Surrey study describes as a “toxic blend of geography, growth, poor energy sources and unfavorable weather that boosts its dangerously high levels of air pollution.”
Classified as the world’s fifth megacity, Delhi’s exponential growth has been fueled by fume-spewing industries, an influx of migrants, and a dramatic upward spiral in the number of motor vehicles. The number of road vehicles in Delhi is predicted to surge from 4.7 million in 2010 to nearly 26 million by 2030. The city’s total energy consumption – supplied mostly by polluting coal and thermal power plants – rose 57 percent from 2001 to 2011.
“The city’s air is a slow poison that is seriously messing with people’s health,” said Suresh Mandana, HOD of pulmonology, Kailash Hospital, Noida, Uttar Pradesh. ”The citizens are getting exposed daily to noxious pollutants-laden air for long hours. This is especially ruinous for little children and senior citizens.”
A stifling heatwave hit northern India as early as March this year due to pollution and the impact of climate change, reported studies, with temperatures soaring to a 122-year high destroying crops and impacting crop patterns, and sending food inflation soaring.
Given the widespread and irreversible impact of pollution on people’s health and the country’s economy, environmentalists say Delhi could well take a leaf out of Beijing’s playbook, successfully managing to reduce, if not eliminate, its spiraling pollution levels. Not long ago, Delhi and Beijing competed with each other for the infamous tag of being the world’s most polluted city. However, while Beijing’s air has begun to improve steadily through strict measures adopted by the government, Delhi’s has continued to worsen.
An initiative similar to Beijing’s ‘Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Air Pollution’, which has well-defined targets to control pollution, could work in Delhi too, said Pratik Mittal, an environmentalist formerly with the Central Pollution Control Board. From 2010 to 2019, outdoor PM2.5 levels in Beijing plummeted by 30 percent, he added
Beijing’s plan defined 10 measures to guide the development of regional action plans including “the development of integrated control efforts for reducing multiple pollutants; establishing regional coordination mechanisms; improving environmental regulations and enforcement; establishing monitoring, warning and emergency response systems; clarifying responsibilities of different organs of the government; accelerating technological transformation; promotion of energy-saving and environment-friendly technologies; upgradation of industrial ecological restoration, reducing coal consumption, management of urban transport technology; and shifting of industries.”
Environmentalists assert that like China, Delhi should also have a formal mechanism of issuing pollution-related alerts to its citizens. “Authorities in Beijing put out an ‘orange alert,’ warning citizens to stay inside and suspending outdoor activities in schools whenever pollution spikes. In fact, Beijing has a four-level alarm system that imposes restrictions on outdoor activities, use of personal vehicles, and emissions from factories and power plants depending on how poor the air quality is. We should do the same, especially in winters, when Delhi’s infamous `smog’ hits the capital city,” Mittal said.
Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of the Center for Science and Environment, said that alongside strong steps to bring down pollution levels, bolstering the existing public transport system is also critical. “Rationing the use of two-wheelers is also important,” she said. “The two-wheelers comprise 54 percent of Delhi’s vehicular fleet and making them follow the odd-even formula will be vital to reducing pollution levels further.”
In 2019, the Indian government declared a "war on pollution" and launched its National Clean Air Program with the goal of reducing 2017 particulate pollution levels by 20 to 30 percent by 2024. Since then, India has adopted fuel emissions standards that are on par with the European Union standards. Although the NCAP targets are non-binding, achieving and sustaining such a reduction would increase the country's national life expectancy by 1.6 years and by as much as 3.2 years for the residents of Delhi, the researchers said.
However, experts say that in India pollution policies and plans don’t work optimally as the menace is compounded by politicking. Delhi’s AAP government led by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is invariably at odds with neighboring governments from Haryana and Punjab states, with each blaming the other for the rise in the region’s pollution. Others point to how a multiplicity of authorities in Delhi ruins any chances of tackling the city’s pollution.
Given that such political problems will invariably persist, Leo Saldanha of the pan-India non-profit Environment Support Group suggests that climate-friendly steps be adopted in the meantime. “Creating open green spaces, urban forests, and improving the public transport system to reduce dependency on private vehicles can go a long way in tackling the pollution menace,” he said. Other viable steps to address pollution include sensitizing the citizens about how they can minimize their carbon footprint as well as strengthening laws to penalize polluting industries heavily, he concluded.