Can India win its war on air pollution?

Every day, Dr. Arvind Kumar, the chest surgery chairman at Sir Ganga Ram hospital the Indian capital of New Delhi, deals with cases of black lung disease. Not because his patients smoke, but because they are faced with unhealthy levels of air pollution. One of his most recent patients, a 32-year old woman from the state of Punjab, has been diagnosed with lung cancer caused by air pollution – and she is not an exceptional case.

“Air pollution is not only having a bad impact on lung health but also on the overall health of individuals. It affects all segments of society, but especially newborns, children and the elderly, as well as pregnant women,” Dr. Kumar tells Equal Times. “The magnitude of the problem demands much greater action that we are currently taking.”

Air pollution is a major cause of death and disease globally, with a recent report by the World Health Organization (WHO) pointing out that over 80 per cent of people living in urban areas are exposed to air quality levels that exceed WHO limits, with populations in low-income cities affected worst of all.

Things in India are particularly bad. According to the report, in which 4,300 global cities were surveyed, all of the world’s top 10 worst cities in terms of ambient air quality can be found in India, with Delhi ranked at number six.

Additional research from the Health Effects Institute shows that air pollution contributed to nearly 1.1 million deaths in India in 2015, “with the burden falling disproportionately (75 per cent) on rural areas”.

One of the main causes of air pollution in India is the burning of cheap petroleum coke, a ‘dirty fuel’, in factories and plants, in addition to indoor air pollution caused by the widespread use of fuels such as wood, charcoal and biomass for cooking, heating and light. According to the WHO, 3.8 million people a year die prematurely from illnesses caused by the inefficient use of such solid fuels and kerosene.

“The key message is that we need to change the fuels consumed at a household level, so that people have reliable sources of energy,” says Dr. Maria Neira, a director for the Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health at WHO. “India has the technology, the experience, the experts and a good plan. We would be happy to see a massive scale-up soon.”

Almost uninhabitable

India began to acknowledge it was facing an air pollution crisis in the 1990s, when smog in Delhi became so pervasive that the city’s chief minister referred to the city as a “gas chamber.” An eye-opening and embarrassing moment for India came last year when, as millions of people watched a televised cricket match, the game was stopped, and a player from the Sri Lankan team started throwing up, hardly able to breathe due to the polluted air that he was inhaling.

The problem has become so severe that research by Unicef shows that air pollution is having a negative impact on children’s brains. Movements like My Right to Breathe are trying to bring awareness to the fact that air pollution has almost made India’s capital uninhabitable. So why hasn’t India put a stop to the problem?

India’s environment ministry has pledged to reduce air pollution in 100 cities by 50 per cent over the next five years under the National Clean Air Programme. Last year, for instance, the country implemented a controversial measure to combat air pollution by banning the sale of fireworks during Diwali, the popular Hindu festival of light.

India has also attempted to fight air pollution by providing 37 million women living below the poverty line with free cooking gas (LPG) connections, enabling them to switch to clean household energy through the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yohana scheme.

But the problem seems to be getting worse, rivalling even China where there are hundreds of thousands of pollution-related deaths every year. With a haze of pollution enveloping Delhi and air quality levels frequently reaching ‘severe’, masks have become a necessity. While some observers have called for the country to speed up the roll-out of the National Clean Air Programme, others say that government policies, like the loosening of environmental protections on construction sites, have further aggravated the problem.

“There are environmental laws in place, but enforcement is very weak,” says Sarath Guttikunda, director of Urban Emissions, an independent research group on air pollution in India. “For example, all coal fired power plants were required to adhere to new emission standards in December 2017, but it has now been delayed for at least three to five years.”

Guttikunda adds that not enough monitoring data is available in the public domain to enforce or track the implementation of these laws. “For now, based on the information available, trends show that air pollution in India is not improving.”

The situation elsewhere

Next door in China, the situation is mixed. On one hand, despite the scale of the problem there, it is being hailed as a champion in the war against air pollution. Earlier this year, Greenpeace said in a report that concentrations of fine particles known as PM 2.5, which are a notable health risk, dropped 33 per cent compared to the previous year in Beijing, Tianjin and 26 other cities. This followed the Chinese government’s decision to force homes and businesses to switch from coal to natural gas (a policy that has temporarily been reversed due to fuel shortages).

However, campaigners are still calling on China to abandon coal and move towards renewable energy, as outlined in the historic 2014 climate deal. According to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), China is on track to dominate investment in renewable technology over the coming years.

With the notable exception of the US, much of the rest of the world is also gradually moving towards abandoning fossil fuels, according to analysis by US environmental group Sierra Club, which revealed that the number of new coal-fired power stations built worldwide in 2016 had seen a 62 per cent drop.

However, air pollution still disproportionally affects people in the Global South. Over 90 per cent of the world’s seven million air pollution-related deaths occur in low and middle-income countries in Asia and Africa, followed by low- and middle-income countries in the eastern Mediterranean region, Europe and the Americas, according to WHO.

While most developed countries have the technology to collect data on air quality, access to such technology in Africa is still limited. In addition, since many rural areas are isolated, infrastructure for electricity distribution is more costly, which provides a huge challenge for governments and private sector companies that want to increase power supply in these areas. On the other hand, the increase take-up of solar power and wind plants promises to offer cleaner power solutions in the coming years which will avoid the health risks and diseases associated with long-term exposure to ‘dirty fuels’ such as coal and wood.

Air pollution levels are lowest in high-income countries in Europe, the Americas and the western Pacific. However, while the European Union is making strides to cut air pollution across the continent, it still has a problem in its own backyard. Belgium – which is home to many of the European institutions dealing with environmental protections – has the second-highest level of diesel cars in the EU, while toxic air particles cause 632 premature deaths in the Belgian capital of Brussels every year.
This greatly worries Annika Cayrol, who got together with a group of parents in 2015 to form Clean Air BXL, a citizens movement campaigning for clean air in the European capital.

“This is a big issue because many people have diesel company cars and there is no incentive not to use them,” Cayrol points out. “The environment minister has said she will ban diesel cars, but not until 2030. That doesn’t make sense.”