First the bad news: More than half of 130 Indian cities being monitored for air pollution are at critically polluted levels.
Now the good news: Air pollution in Indian cities has been proved to be reversible, with improvements in public transport or changing over to greener fuels, reducing pollution levels.
But, now the really bad news: With industries being relocated to the peripheries of cities, growing urbanization and poor scrutiny outside big cities, small towns are emerging as India’s pollution hotspots.
According to WHO estimates, roughly 0.1 million premature deaths annually can be attributed to air pollution. Exposure to air pollution causes both short-term and long-term health effects, from eye irritation and headaches to reduced lung capacity and lung cancer, with vehicular pollution being particularly harmful. The poor are the worst off, facing higher exposure and being unable to afford high healthcare costs. A 2005 World Bank report estimated that 13,000 lives and $1279 million were saved annually between 1993 and 2002 in five cities Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad — as a result of measures taken to improve air quality.
A look at data for 2008 recorded by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) shows that Indian cities are choked. Of the 130 cities monitored, 70 have hit levels defined as critical for the presence of PM10, tiny particles of less than 10 microns in size regarded as the most dangerous pollutant as they can go deep into the lungs. However, the top five cities are Ludhiana, Khanna (both in Punjab), Ghaziabad, Khurja and Firozabad (all in UP). Delhi, the city where judicial activism for cleaner air has led to the ejection of polluting industries, comes in at sixth place.
The improvements in some major cities and the simultaneous emergence of several smaller towns as pollution hotspots shows that what we are seeing is national policy failure, says Anumita Roychowdhury, associate director of the CSE.
Northern India is far more polluted than the south, with Gobindgarh (Punjab), Kanpur (UP), Indore (MP) and Raipur (Chhattisgarh) rounding out the top-10 list. Some cities in south are showing rising PM10 trends — Hyderabad, Tuticorin, Bangalore and Coimbatore in particular. While particulate matter comes from a variety of sources, PM10 is largely from vehicles.
Eastern India, meanwhile, shows high levels of nitrogen dioxide which is fast emerging as a national challenge, according to the Centre for Science and Environment. In 1998, only five cities exceeded the national standards for presence of NO2. In 2008, 15 cities showed violations, most of them in eastern India: Howrah, Asansol, Durgapur and Kolkata have India’s highest NO2 levels. Increasing numbers of diesel cars, particularly in Delhi, is also a major cause of rising NO2 levels, according to the CSE.
The pollution control efforts in Indian cities show, however, that air pollution is not irreversible and this is not a lost battle. Public and judicial activism have resulted in eight cities — Delhi, Kanpur, Lucknow, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai, and Sholapur being directly monitored by the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority under Supreme Court orders. Mumbai and Kolkata are under the scrutiny of their high courts. According to a CSE report, Ahmedabad has reduced its PM10 levels by nearly 50%, Solapur (Maharashtra) by 57% and Chennai, Pune and Kolkata have stopped its growth.
Pollution levels have stabilized to some extent in some of these cities, but in the absence of aggressive action, these gains are in danger of being reversed. In Delhi, for example, the significant gains made from decades of public activism have been reversed and PM10, NO2 and ozone levels are rising fast according to CPCB data.
At the heart of the matter lies the fact that the bulk of pollution in Indian cities is caused by cars, and despite changes to greener fuels and improvements in public transport, direct curbs on number of cars on roads seems to be inevitable to manage pollution. In Delhi alone, 1100 vehicles are being added to the city’s five million every day, with car ownership growing at 10% annually since 1995.
Public ridership, meanwhile, has dropped from 60% in 2000-1 to 43% in 2008. In addition to investing in public transport, restraints on car ownership and usage are unavoidable if pollution is to be brought down to acceptable levels, says Roychowdhury.