India needs to address air pollution in rural areas along with urban areas in order to meet the World Health Organisation's Global Air Quality Guidelines.
The new guidelines recommend air quality levels for six pollutants — particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), ozone (O₃), nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) sulfur dioxide (SO₂) and carbon monoxide (CO) — which cause health issues to humans.
Karthik Ganesan, Fellow at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) believes that India, despite aiming to reduce air pollution by 30 per cent under the National Clean Air Plan, has to increase its focus on tackling air pollution in rural India.
"The moment we start monitoring in rural India in a better way, we will realise that there are far more sources (of air pollution). And probably the burden in terms of direct exposure for many of the people (in rural areas is higher). We find that exposure actually for the rural residents are probably far higher," Ganesan told BOOM.
Ganesan also stresses the need for authorities to come up with better policies to tackle sources of pollution.
"Most of the plans submitted by cities are identical plans without focus on what exactly is the source of pollution impacting these cities. Ultimately cities reside in larger air sheds, which then end up polluting them so they need to be cognizant about of that. Whereas they are all narrowly focused on what is perhaps within their boundary," Ganesan said.
"On the policy front, speaking more transparently about the issue of air pollution as opposed to sort of saying that we have conquered it is important. The tone and the messaging needs to change when it comes to policy makers. In terms of what can citizens do — I am not being flippant about it — continue wearing masks even after the COVID-19 pandemic has abated," he added.
Edited excerpts of the interview follow
What do we make of these numbers? The first is before the WHO revised its guidelines and what do we make of them today as things stand?
Kartik Ganesan: The standards have obviously been tightened for particulate matter, PM 2.5. What it basically means is it has become more of an uphill task for India to now meet the global standards.
As you know, India's standards were significantly relaxed for particulate matter PM 2.5, as well as for PM10, and Sulphur dioxide, and Nitrogen dioxide, on all metrics. The standards have gotten tighter in the case of PM2.5, Nitrogen dioxide, as well as PM 10. Which means that India under its National Clean Air Plan (NCAP), which is an ambitious plan to reduce air pollution by 30 per cent, was still leaving us a fair bit to do to meet the older standard. And mind you, you mentioned what is the 24 hour standard.
The annual average standard is actually lower. Because 24 hours is basically to account for those kinds of acute days of exposure. So, the standard of sixty (60), which India has is basically for acute exposure. Whereas if you look at the annual average, that number is 40 and the global number right now has come down to 5 microgram per metre cube. So the annual average is basically 8 times the standard. The Indian standard is about 8 times.
Poor air quality is the leading risk factor for various mortalities; ultimately somebody could die of a cardiovascular or a pulmonary disorder. But air pollution is basically the leading factor which exacerbates their existing condition. It potentially results in about 1.7 million annual deaths in the country and it is more significant than tobacco smoke, malnourishment as well as sanitation-related microbial diseases that are prevalent in India. So it is indeed the crisis of our times.
Why has the WHO reduced the threshold levels?
KG: The last standard was released in 2005, so it has been about 16 years since the last standard and now. And over the period research has continued to happen across the developing and the developed world. And they have taken stock of what exactly is the mortality associated with air pollution related criteria pollutants, which is PM2.5.
And they have found that there is significant evidence based on the mortality that they are seeing for us to bring this down because today globally around 7 million deaths are attributed to poor air quality across different pollutants. They feel that we can cut that number by about 75 per cent if you were to adopt this new standard. Out of its 7 million, take 1.7 as basically from India, we have a significant share of that. So, if India can bring its pollution load down by that much and if India can benefit, fantastic.
Basically, it is a result of scientific evidence that has emerged over the course of the last decade and a half that has prompted this to happen.
What is the Indian view on this? There have also been some observations that these standards do not necessarily apply to us because of the manner in which they are measured, and that they represent only the slices and not the whole?
KG: India obviously has challenges meeting these standards. The main point of contention is that these represent response functions from the rest of the world. India was not counted. At the end of the day a human lung in Canada and Scandinavia is the same as the human lung in India. Ours are not made out of steel and we respond very much the same way to pollution as they would.
Keeping that in mind there have been studies. While the number of studies in India has not certainly been as much as in the West, there are increasing evidence of this and we are so far away from the standards that we should definitely sort of take this on our chin and see how rapidly can we bring down pollution levels to meet these standards as closely as possible, as opposed to rejecting them outright and saying that the evidence does not exist in the Indian context for us to bring down the pollution loads.
Many of us think that this problem is confined to Delhi and Mumbai and that is clearly not the case. How will you present or argue the point that we need to think about it more holistically as a country?
KG: The debate has always been centred on NCR, primarily because 40 out of the 250 odd monitoring stations — the continuous air quality monitoring stations — in the country are located in Delhi. So obviously, your worldview is that of the place you can measure the most. And by measuring the most it has become front and centre.
Now, what happens if you start measuring in other areas? If you start measuring in rural Punjab during the burning season, that is ground zero. More so than Delhi, we should be worried about what happens in Punjab. Where is residential biomass used, solid fuel used in indoor environments most prominent? It is again in rural India.
The moment we start monitoring in rural India in a better way, we will realise that there are far more sources. And probably the burden in terms of direct exposure for many of the people (in rural areas is higher). Especially because as they are directly in the line of fire, if they expose themselves a lot more than urban India, where for instance many people are indoors, they have air purifiers running in Delhi. We find that exposure actually for the rural residents are probably far higher.
It is important for us to communicate the challenge as opposed to going into a shell and say, it is not for us, and India cannot address this. Granted that the ambient level of air pollutions, background as they call it, which is if we brought all activity to standstill in India, we may still find the levels of air pollution are probably still higher than the standard.
Now that points to sort of deep rooted issues that may be anthropogenic and natural emissions that we have to address through various means — like deforestation is resulting in pollution from various parts of the country, excessive fertilizer usage in farms is resulting in ammonia related pollution as well. Those are of course bigger questions, but India does have a background which I think itself poses a bigger challenge as much as the anthropogenic one does.
What should we be doing at a policy level? What can we as individuals be doing in a situation like this?
KG: On the first part in terms of what can the policy do; I think already there is work afoot under the National Clean Air Plan that was announced in 2019 which wants to bring down levels by 30 per cent across different non-metro cities. The major sort of lacunae in that is the mode of financing for different activities that will have to be actually taken care of is not very clear. There has not been a very clear allocation of resources.
Most of the plans submitted by cities are identical plans without focus on what exactly is the source of pollution impacting these cities. Ultimately cities reside in larger air sheds, which then end up polluting them so they need to be cognizant about of that. Whereas they are all narrowly focused on what is perhaps within their boundary. Again they have sort of copied plans from other cities.
Addressing the financial aspect and making clear plans for what exactly is polluting and understanding that in case of cities where studies do not exist is very important.
On the policy front, there is this important communication needed which is speaking more transparently about the issue of air pollution as opposed to sort of saying that we have conquered it. The tone and the messaging needs to change when it comes to policy makers. In terms of what can citizens do — I am not being flippant about it — continue wearing masks even after the COVID-19 pandemic has abated.
N95 was originally meant to protect ourselves from pollution in cities like Delhi…
KG: And then it became for corona. I would say please continue to wear those masks because it also protects you from air pollution which is clear and present even when corona is not there. So let us continue to do that. We got into the practise, let us sustain that.
But more substantively, we have to be cognizant of the fact that we live in places that are highly polluted and the onus and the liability is on the administrators in the cities and the states to give us that. And I think we need to make a clear case for them to act on.
So for instance, in a city like Delhi which has taken cognisance, there is a Green Delhi app, in which we can complain and complaints get resolved. But the thing is once we stop complaining they stop taking notice. Because proactive action on air pollution is a 24x7 job for these institutions and they are more than happy to take the pedal off the gas when they know people are not complaining.
And we complain only when pollution is visible, right? November, December and probably some parts of January. The fact is that it is a year-round problem and we need to ensure that we hold them accountable year round. Waste burning happens year-round, vehicles not meeting pollution standards happen year round, industrial pollution is year round.
We need to ensure that those sources of pollution that we see are brought to the attention, and we take that time out to make the city we are in, a little more liveable. So, I think we have to be more vigilant. It is the most important thing that we can do as I said.