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Arunabha Ghosh & Hem Himanshu Dholakia: Competitive pollutionism no good

Arunabha Ghosh & Hem Himanshu Dholakia 

Arunabha Ghosh & Hem Himanshu Dholakia

While hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in November 2014, China shut industries around Beijing and pulled half the cars off the road to ensure blue skies. When one of us landed in Beijing, three days after the summit, factories were humming again but the sky was still blue. Four days later, it had turned into light grey. Newspaper started urging the government to take lasting measures for Chinese skies to have "permanent APEC blue".

Beijing and Delhi (or China and India) are in the throes of a major air pollution problem. It is affecting health, economic growth and quality of life. Media attention has helped to highlight the problem while citizens seek remedies from masks to air purifiers. But sometimes attention is mistakenly focused on which city is worse, as if such competitive pollutionism were worthy of a prize.

Air pollution is a complex outcome of emissions (from transport, industry, power and waste) and atmospheric conditions. These conditions vary greatly in Delhi and Beijing thanks to topography, winds, temperature, and the boundary layer where pollutants mix. When inferring the impact of air pollution, comparisons of peak values (from a single measurement point) with 24-hour average values could be misleading. The World Health Organization found Delhi's air quality worse than Beijing by comparing annual mean concentrations of PM2.5 and PM10. Another study by the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology's System of Air Quality Forecasting and Research (IITM-SAFAR) found that daily PM2.5 levels in Delhi in January 2014 were consistently below those in Beijing. The real issue is not which city is more polluted; both are in trouble. Instead, we must dispassionately analyse causes and effects to find practical solutions.

Air quality is already having severe impacts on human health. In 2010 PM2.5 pollution accounted for 627,000 deaths in India (double those caused by diarrhoea, a leading killer of children). Further, 17 million disability adjusted life-years were lost. PM2.5 pollution is already responsible for average Indian life expectancy to be lower by 3.2 years. Research by one of us finds that there will be 22,000 additional deaths in 2030 in Delhi (among the 30+ age group) due to PM2.5 air pollution. That means today's teenagers are facing worse health outcomes even as incomes increase in a rapidly developing economy. Elsewhere, every 10 additional micrograms of PM10 in each cubic metre of air raises mortality risk significantly (about 0.2 per cent in Mumbai and Bengaluru, 0.85 per cent in Hyderabad, and 1.36 per cent in Shimla).

If economic growth will not automatically translate into improved life chances, air pollution will also hamper economic growth. The World Bank estimated that in 2009 economic losses associated with outdoor air pollution were about 1.7 per cent of GDP. We estimate that deaths can be reduced by 50 per cent if stringent pollution control policies were pursued. Without these efforts, Delhi would not achieve even the Indian standards for ambient air quality by 2030 (let alone meet global standards). It is unlikely that Indian cities can aspire to be the hubs of innovation, investment and entrepreneurship, or attract and retain the best minds if such conditions persist. Whither economic growth then?

The Central Pollution Control Board last conducted a study to attribute air pollution levels to various human activities in 2010. That study found that the main contributor to PM10 was road dust in four out of six cities (Delhi 45 per cent, Mumbai 35 per cent, Pune 57 per cent and Bengaluru 50 per cent). Vehicular exhaust was the main culprit in Chennai (43 per cent). In Delhi, the other sources were waste burning (17 per cent), transport (14 per cent), diesel gensets (nine per cent), industry (eight per cent) and domestic sources (seven per cent). In Beijing industrial pollution, inorganic aerosols and coal combustion are much bigger causes.

For India-specific solutions, we must start with better monitoring. Delhi has about 19 real-time automatic monitoring stations (operated by the CPCB, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee and IITM-SAFAR). There are another 40 manual stations run by DPCC. In total 240 cities and towns in India have 573 monitors. (In 2011, 325 Chinese cities had monitoring stations.) India needs many more real-time monitoring stations. Since these are expensive to install (Rs 1 crore) and maintain (Rs 20 lakh annually), lower-cost handheld monitors could be used. Such imperfect data (but from multiple sources) could be validated against reference monitoring stations.

Secondly, comprehensive transport planning is needed. CNG buses and the removal of older vehicles are insufficient. Emission standards are to be raised to Bharat Stage V in 2020 but we could, instead, aim for BS VI by 2020 or soon after. Mechanical road sweepers and improved traffic management to minimise start-stop movement can reduce road dust. Mobility planning must include public transport, electric vehicles, as well as walking and cycling. Auctions of new vehicular registration could reduce demand for private vehicles.

Thirdly, in line with Swachh Bharat, residential burning of garbage and plastic must be stopped immediately. Fourthly, high efficiency de-dusters must be mandated for thermal power plants. There will be costs involved, which could be financed against future savings in health and economic costs. Let's forget Beijing's APEC blue, and aspire for a "blue Delhi".

Arunabha Ghosh is chief executive and Hem Dholakia is a research associate at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, Delhi

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First Published: Mon, March 16 2015. 21:46 IST