Indian minister promises to tackle country’s acute air pollution problem, yes, its even worse than China

WHO survey finds Delhi is the most polluted city in the world, with dangerous PM2.5 levels 10 times the upper recommended limit

Air PollutionSmog covers buildings in the Indian capital, Delhi. According to an air quality index the concentration of airborne particles known as PM2.5, which are considered the most harmful, was more than 10 times the upper limit recommended by the WHO.

Smog covers buildings in the Indian capital, Delhi. According to an air quality index the concentration of airborne particles known as PM2.5, which are considered the most harmful, was more than 10 times the upper limit recommended by the WHO.

The Indian environment minister has promised to tackle his nation’s acute problem with air pollution “better than the rest of the world has ever done” amid growing domestic concern at the health impact on hundreds of millions of people living in the developing nation’s overcrowded cities.

In an interview with the Guardian, Prakash Javadekar said the government would announce India’s first nationwide “composite, comprehensive” air index this week. So far, India’s collection of pollution data has been haphazard and compares poorly with regional rival China.

The move was welcomed by experts. Sarath Guttikunda, an expert with Urban Emissions, an independent research group, said: “We have been saying that pollution is very bad and now we’ll be able to see that. It’s a first step but it’s not going to solve the problem by itself.” .

A survey released last year by the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that Delhi, the Indian capital, was the most polluted city in the world, with an annual average of 153 micrograms of the most dangerous small particulates, known as PM2.5, per cubic metre.

The level was six times the WHO’s recommended maximum, 12 times US standards and more than twice the level considered safe by Indian authorities. During the winter, when lower temperatures and fires intensify the pollution, concentrations of PM2.5s and other pollutants routinely spike much higher, reaching levels described by experts as “hazardous” for humans.

The problem is not restricted to the capital. Thirteen of the dirtiest 20 cities in the world were in India, the WHO said.


Another survey – the Environmental Preference Index – ranked India 155 out of 178 countries for air quality last year.

The local effects of the pollution are increasingly clear. The WHO has also found that India has the world’s highest rates of death from respiratory disease, with 159 per 100,000 in 2012, around 10 times that of Italy, five times that of the UK and twice that of China.

“Clean air is a birth right,” said Javedkar, the minister. “We are giving high priority to this. It has not been handled correctly over the last 10 years.”

air-pollution-in-delhiThe current Bharatiya Janata party government took power with a landslide victory at an election last year. The prime minister, Narendra Modi, campaigned on a promise of boosting India’s flagging growth and freeing industry from restrictions, including many designed to protect India’s environment. It has been unclear how Modi intends to reconcile growth with protection of India’s forests, rivers and air quality.

After being ignored by media and politicians for many years, the toxic air is now becoming a significant domestic issue.

This week, major local newspapers ran successive front page stories highlighting the problem. One reported on the impact the pollution was having on children in the capital with a previously unpublished study by scientists from one of the country’s most respected cancer research institutions.

The Indian Express newspaper said the research showed children in Delhi suffered significantly more respiratory diseases, including asthma and severe lung disorder, than a control group as well as higher levels of hypertension and hyperactivity. Diminished lung capacity in the children would probably be permanent, the authors concluded.

A survey by Greenpeace earlier this year found levels in schools – many of which are located close to roads – that were four times worse than those triggering alerts in London.

Dr Rashmi Rakshit, a 52-year-old associate professor of physics at Delhi University, said she had developed asthma which needed constant medication and and her two adult children also had respiratory problems.

“How will only monitoring help? We all know the severity of the problem. The government has to work on finding a solution, not just on highlighting a problem,” Rakshit said.

Vandana Bhalla, an interior designer from Delhi’s Shalimar Bagh neighbourhood, said her nine-year-old daughter had been recently diagnosed with symptoms of asthma.

“I was not so bothered about it before but now my daughter coughs a lot and when she gets cold she is sick for more than 15 days. Even in summer, she is affected because of this bad air,” Bhalla said.

Guttikunda said even though the new public interest and better availability of data would increase pressure on politicians, any rapid improvement would be unlikely.

“It’s really very very bad … and it’s going to get worse,” he said.

Delhi authorities rejected the findings of the WHO study, with government scientists saying the UN agency had overestimated levels in the capital. The claim that Delhi was more polluted than Beijing caused particular irritation among officials.

Yet there are limits to what Javedkar or other national level ministers can achieve. Delhi is effectively an independent state, and most of the measures that might limit pollution would have to be enacted by local elected representatives and implemented by local officials.

One problem has been successive changes of government of Delhi in recent years, which has led to a series of strategies being drawn up and then shelved.

Javadekar blamed four major factors for the particularly acute problem in Delhi: stubble burning on farmland around the capital; sandstorms blowing in from the desert state of Rajasthan to the west; the number of vehicles now on the roads in the capital; and the failure over decades to build a bypass for the 50,000 to 100,000 trucks which drive through Delhi every day to reach other destinations.

But he said similar problems existed elsewhere. “Delhi is like hundreds of other [cities] in the world. It is not an isolated example,” he said.

The city has had some success combating pollution in the past. Following a 1998 court decision, Delhi converted its bus and rickshaws to compressed national gas, which had a major impact on pollution. But Delhi’s 8,000 buses are only a small fraction of total traffic.

Between 1991 and 2011, the population of Delhi and its adjoining cities more than doubled from approximately 10 million to 22 million while the number of registered cars and motorbikes increased from 1.6m in 1991 to around 8m today.

A new metro has made little impact, experts say, as most of its users previously travelled by buses, bicycles or on foot. Car users have remained reluctant to switch to public transport.

One Indian study found that concentrations of PM2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5 mm in diameter) could be 50% higher than usually recorded if measured close to roads. This means that drivers in Delhi in winter could be exposed to levels of the most harmful particulates that are 30 or 40 times the WHO safe limits.

The problem is compounded by construction and systematic burning of waste.

Indian authorities have done little compared with their counterparts in China, where air pollution is one of the top items on the government’s agenda since a choking smog dubbed the “airpocalypse” engulfed key Chinese cities in January 2013.

Beijing recently introduced measures to limit the number of motorists on heavily polluted days.

Under China’s newly amended environmental law, criminal penalties will be imposed on those found guilty of trying to evade pollution monitoring systems.

India is under pressure to disclose its plans to cut green house gas emissions before UN talks from 30 November to 11 December in Paris.

Delhi has so far baulked at committing itself to major cuts, arguing that it will not set itself targets that undermine efforts to end poverty.

China announced its plan to cap its emissions by about 2030 in a joint announcement with the US last November.

In January, Modi had said that though “India is an independent country and [under] no pressure … from any country or any person … when we think about the future generations, what kind of world are we going to give them, then there is pressure”.

Source: The Guardian

About Ritesh Pothan

Ritesh Pothan, is an accomplished speaker and visionary in the Solar Energy space in India. Ritesh is from an Engineering Background with a Master’s Degree in Technology and had spent more than a decade as the Infrastructure Head for a public limited company with the last 9 years dedicated to Solar and Renewable Energy. He also runs the 2 largest India focused renewable energy groups on LinkedIn - Solar - India and Renewables - India
This entry was posted in Climate Change, India, Pollution and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.