December 2nd marks National Pollution Control Day in India. Every year, more than a million people die of pollution-related reasons across the country. Air pollution is one of the biggest culprits.
The past year has only confirmed what anecdotal evidence had long suggested – Indian cities are some of the world’s most polluted places. In 2014, India was ranked 174 of 178 countries on air quality in the Environmental Performance Index.
Another study by the WHO called Delhi the most polluted city in the world and added that 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India. Clearly, India has a problem and without immediate and effective action, it’s going to be here to stay.
On National Pollution Control Day, we look at international and domestic efforts to control increasing levels of air pollution.
WHO Raises Red Flag
As per WHO estimates, indoor and outdoor air pollution caused the premature death of over 8 million people in 2012 alone, most of them in developing countries.
Recognising the scale of the problem, WHO called air pollution one of the “leading avoidable causes of disease and death globally” and the “the world’s largest single environmental health risk” at its annual meeting.
A Resolution adopted at a WHO meeting asks member nations to address the impact of air pollution on a priority basis. Among the suggested measures were better health care, cleaner technologies for cooking, heating, fuel and lighting and, importantly, for better air pollution monitoring and information systems.
So What’s India Doing?
Several pollution related measures are on the anvil, including new pollution-related environmental amendments, better vehicle monitoring, National Green Tribunal decisions restricting polluters and measures to “green” polluting factories.
One of the most high profile of these measures is the Air Quality Index (AQI).
In line with the WHO call for countries to better inform their citizens about air pollutant levels, the AQI basically aims at recording air pollution data in a real-time colour-coded format.
This makes the AQI a snapshot of air quality and it charts the per-hour levels of the most dangerous pollution such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead and ozone.
Air Quality Index
Red levels indicate the risk of severe health impacts, yellow levels indicate moderate risks and green levels indicate that pollution is within limits.
The good thing about the AQI is that it helps citizens make informed decisions on days that the pollution levels are particularly severe and provides them with up to date information.
The bad news is that simply monitoring pollution without actually curbing it is of little use. If you’re an average person, knowing that the pollution levels are particularly bad doesn’t mean much – you need to go about your daily life anyway.
Air pollution is caused by several things - weak regulation, insufficient monitoring of polluting sectors, and even our festival firecrackers! The AQI data now needs to be used to implement meaningful changes across the country.
Pollution controls aren’t always a politically easy choice, but countries around the world are sitting up to try and address the problem by limiting traffic, encouraging clean public transport and taking strict action against polluters. As India mulls a new Environmental Laws Amendment Bill to curb pollution, let’s hope that these measures will begin clearing the air.
(Shalini Iyengar is a lawyer and Research Associate at the International University College, Turin.)
(On this National Pollution Control Day, we bring you a series of pieces about the state of pollution in India. This piece was originally published on 2 December 2015.)