India's growing air pollution problem: Why legal intervention alone is the only way for a solution now
India has seen the highest increase in air pollution levels in the world during the last decade.
The UK Supreme Court strongly indicted the British government last year for failing to curb air pollution in their country.
Their concern focussed on how air pollution was causing 29,000 early deaths in a year. An NGO called ClientEarth took the government to task for the high levels of nitrogen dioxide produced by road traffic blaming it for increased risk of heart attacks, strokes and respiratory disorders among the public.
The British Supreme Court then ordered an immediate action to be implemented countrywide to curb pollution.
It is shocking that India’s Supreme Court has not shown a similar concern when the Global Burden of Disease study has highlighted that in India, the ambient air pollution is responsible for 3,283 premature deaths every day. This works out to 2.5 million deaths in a year killing more people than TB, AIDS and malaria put together.
Our Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) has come up with a comprehensive action plan but the Ministry of Environment and Forests is busy denying the validity of the Global Burden of Disease and Lancet studies which establish a direct correlation of deaths to air pollution. Environment ministry officials dismiss the studies on the ground that the State of Global Air 2017 put the number of premature deaths due to air pollution in India in 2015 to 1.09 million while the recently released Lancet study put the number of deaths to 1.81 million.
India has seen the highest increase in pollution levels in the world during the last decade. Today, ten of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in India. Cities in this category include Varanasi, Gwalior, Kanpur, Lucknow, Patna, Allahabad, Vadodara, Surat and of course Delhi which in 2014 was found by WHO to be the most polluted city in the world.
Vivekanand Jha, executive director of the George Institute for Global Health has repeatedly emphasised how there are direct linkages of air pollution with heart attacks, stroke, diabetes, chronic kidney disease and cancer.
Jha has further emphasised how air pollution also reduces the number of years in an individual's life by aggravating asthma attacks, eye and skin disorders and increasing the risk of blood pressure as also psychiatric disorders.
Of course, the Supreme Court did intervene to put a temporary ban on the use of firecrackers till 1 November in the NCR but this can hardly be described as resolving this behemoth problem which is facing us.
While this move did see pollution levels decline in the NCR, millions of Delhites work up post-Diwali to find a cloud of smog hanging over the city line. Mumbai and Chennai also experienced unexpectedly high levels of pollution with some parts of Chennai recording PMO 10 levels of 777 this year against 178 last year. Air Quality Index (AQI) levels across the Indo-Gangetic Plain and Thane, Pune, Aurangabad, Nagpur, Chandrapur, Nashik and Solapur also recorded much higher pollution levels this year according to data released by the Central Pollution Control Board.
Anumita Roychowdhury of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) pointed out, "The Graded Action of Plan designed on the lines of the mechanisms in place in Beijing and Paris has kickstarted from October 17 under the supervision of the EPCA.
"This is legally binding and the government will have to enforce it in the NCR. The air quality in Delhi will be monitored on a daily basis. If air quality enters the poor category, it will involve shutting down of the Badarpur power plant, shutting down of brick kilns.
"While if the air quality enters the severe category, then we will have to stop all construction activity in the NCR and introduce the odd-even carpooling system. The entire details are being finalised and should be ready the end of this month."
Roychowdhury said, "Once this starts in Delhi, it should act as a template for the rest of the country."
But why has a similar template not been drawn up for the rest of the country given the dire air pollution situation? Surely the Supreme Court should by now have insisted on a similar template for all our cities.
"The Supreme Court does not do things on its own. It responds to a PIL. We need to build up public opinion across the country. There is greater awareness in some cities like Mumbai, Chennai and Bengaluru but other cities have to follow suit. The need of the hour is more," she said.
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