India’s Polluted Cities
By Dhurjati Mukherjee
Air pollution levels remain dangerously high in many parts of the world. New data from WHO shows that 9 out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants. Updated estimations reveal an alarming death toll of 7 million people every year caused by ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution.
Coming to India, the latest global air quality database shows that India has 14 worst-polluted cities in the world and this point to widespread air pollution that has spread into second tier cities. The 2018 air quality database released in May pointed to Kanpur as the world’s most polluted city followed by Lucknow, Varanasi, Gaya, Patna, Delhi, Agra, Muzzaffarpur, Srinagar, Gurgaon, Jaipiur, Patiala and Jodhpur.
The 14 cities are at the top of a list of about 540 cities worldwide where air pollution exceeds the limits of 20 microns and 10 micro-grams per cubic metre for PM sized 2.5 microns. The database found a site in Kuwait, Ulaanbaattar in Mongolia and four Chinese cities that follow the 14 Indian cities
Kolkata is at the 40th position with poorer air quality than Baghdad (41) and Beijing (42). Hyderabad, Mumbai, Nagpur, Pune, Thiruvanthapuram and Vizag are among the other Indian cities where PM 10 and PM 2.5 levels exceed the prescribed limits.
In an associated report, the WHO said that the Southeast region bears the highest burden of about 2.4 million deaths of the estimated seven million premature deaths linked to air pollution world-wide. Air pollution accounts for an estimated 24 per cent of adult deaths from heart disease, 25 per cent from stroke, 43 per cent from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and 29 per cent from lung cancer.
The Union Environment Ministry announced the draft National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) that proposes to enhance air pollution monitoring facilities from 691 to 1000 towns, determine sources of air pollution in over 94 cities and outline 42 measures that large cities could take to curb air pollution. Experts have pointed out in discussions with the government that the plan is silent about actions needed on the ground and pollution mitigation targets.
The overt focus on cities gives a misleading impression that bad air is a problem in cities alone. A more regional approach is needed. The draft NCAP has also tried to underplay multiple studies that have highlighted the health impacts of air pollution. It is difficult to agree with the draft that international studies on mortality die to air pollution exposure “may not be realistic”.
Air pollution is the fifth leading cause of death in India after high blood pressure, indoor air pollution, tobacco smoking and poor nutrition with about 62000 premature deaths occurring from such pollution related diseases. The main sources of such outdoor pollution are vehicle emissions, thermal power plants, industrial and agricultural emissions and indoor heating and cooking, the IARC pointed out. This has been increasing very rapidly in India and the country had the worst air quality, according to various studies, including one conducted by Yale University (in 2013). Amongst 132 countries assessed, Kolkata and Delhi are among the world’s worst polluted cities and hence have the highest levels of premature deaths.
A few years back, the Delhi-based Centre for Science & Environment (CSE), analyzed air quality data collected by the government from 227 cities and towns, and found that nearly half the country’s urban population is exposed to air with particulate matter levels higher than safe limits. Thus premature deaths were the highest in metro cities of Kolkata and Delhi with new lung cancer cases among men being the highest in these two cities – 16.8 and 13.9 per one lakh population respectively, according to ICMR. Chennai and Bangalore followed with 12.6 and 10.8 while that of women it was Kolkata 5, Bangalore 4.6, Delhi 4.2 and Chennai 4.2 per one lakh population.
Doctors blame fine pollutants spewed through automobile exhaust pipes and measuring less than 2.5 micron in diameter for the spurt in lung cancer cases. Obviously those residing in pavements, squatter settlements and refugee colonies are the worst-affected and this population is quite large in Kolkata.
Thus the poorer sections living in these areas, have been mostly affected with cardiovascular and other diseases, including asthma, bronchitis and lung cancer, which have witnessed a significant rise over the years. Oxides of sulphur and nitrogen cause breathing problems while carbon monoxide hampers oxygen transport in the body. In the lungs, oxygen gets attached to the haemoglobin present in the blood. When carbon monoxide is inhaled, it combines with haemoglobin to form carboxy-haemoglobin. As a result, less haemoglobin is available for transporting oxygen. This causes headaches and, in extreme cases, death.
In the rural sector, indoor air pollution, resulting from chulhas burning wood, coal and animal dung as fuel has been another big problem, claiming 5 lakh lives in India every year, most of whom are women and children. India accounts for 80 per cent of the 600,000 premature deaths that occur in South East Asia annually due to exposure to indoor air pollution. Nearly 70 per cent of rural households do not even have proper ventilation.
Children suffer most if they breathe polluted air for their lungs are still in a developing phase. Experts at the Institute of Pulmocare and Research, Kolkata, stated that it has been seen that proximity to pollution increases the chances of lung disorders and reduces the efficiency of the organs. The growth in the number of vehicles in Kolkata – as also in other metros – has resulted in the number of children with lung disorders increasing. But this is also true for other cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai etc.
A recent study conducted by Duke University, US and published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found premature deaths from air pollution among 154 cities globally may be controlled if the world cuts greenhouse gas emissions to limit global temperature rise to 1.50 C above pre-industrial levels. It listed Calcutta, Delhi, Patna, Mumbai and Agra among the 10 cities expected to see the most significant health gains, measured by the number of lives saved.
In spite of this threatening scenario, the initiative of the government is no doubt welcome but the Plan should not be just techno-centric but a realistic one encompassing both urban and rural areas. However, focus has obviously to be given on the polluted cities and more specifically on areas where air quality is very poor- for example places where waste of the city is being dumped. As regards semi-urban areas where mining operations are in operation, there is need for intervention.
The task is indeed quite challenging and coordination between the Centre and States, on the one hand, and between air pollution control boards and district officials, on the other would be needed. Also experts on public health and chemical engineering, environmental sciences along with institutions like the Institute of Public Health Engineering (IPHE), All India Institute of Hygiene & Public Health should be involved to finalise the NCAP and the implementation plan in this regard.
Meanwhile, at the global level, the Breathe Life Air Pollution Campaign has been initiated which is a partnership of WHO, UN Environment and Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-lived Climate Pollutants to increase awareness and action on air pollution by governments and individuals.-INFA