air pollution
Environment Op-ed Others Pollution & Climate Change Resource Management

Gasping for Fresh air: The crisis of Air pollution

Every year, June 5 sounds an alarm bell for Sapiens as a wake up call for action against global scale environmental degradation. This year’s environmental day will be on the theme – Air pollution and quite fitting, China, which has made considerable progress in combating air pollution will host it this year.  According to World Health Organisation, every year, around 7 million people die prematurely from disease caused by air pollution. That is 800 people every hour, or 13 every minute, dying because of the dirty air they breathe. Approximately, 4 million of these deaths occur in the Asia-Pacific region. India has an ignominious record wherein the top 14 most polluted cities (in terms of PM 2.5 concentration) out the top 15 cities in the world are in India.

Source: UN

Air pollution – a silent killer:

Air pollution is a major hazard as it poses several health, economic & non-economic issues and losses. The main pollutants are Particulate Matter (PM 2.5 (2.5 refers to Particulates < 25 micrometer (less than the diameter of a hair strand)  & PM 10), Carbon Monoxide, Oxides of Sulfur & Nitrogen & other volatile Organic compounds.

Particulate matter in air can lead to respiratory issues such as asthma and Chronic Obstructive pulmonary disease and can be fatal to children, pregnant mothers,elderly and those prone to respiratory issues. Many research publications connect air pollution to health effects of Central Nervous system, Cardiac arrest, diabetes, Blood pressure and even health effects to babies in womb.

Air pollution – a sector wise analysis:

Air pollution around Taj Mahal

Air pollution is primarily caused by major activities in Agriculture, Industry, Energy sector & Transportation while Indoor Air pollution is also a major issue.  In the case of agriculture, the largest contributor is from the burning of crop residues by farmers. In India, this issue looms large in the winters, turning the National Capital Region into a gas chamber.

The farmers around Delhi, Mainly in Punjab, have no effective means to dispose the paddy straw and prepare the land for next cultivation. Therefore, they are forced to resort to the oldest waste disposal technique – burning. Paddy straw burning spews huge concentrations of Particulate matter and is pervasive enough to spread throughout Delhi and the NCR. Crop residue burning also signifies a significant wastage of resources – as it can be used to generate biofuels.

Small scale Industries in developing nations are not organised and don’t have access to clean fuel as it is costly, while they continue to be informal & unorganised. One best example is the brick kiln industry operating in NCR. They use dirty solid fuels for brick manufacturing and regulating them is a difficult task for Indian authorities. Any commuter in the outskirts of Delhi can see plumes of black smoke emanating in the horizons of the NCR. Also, most industries use diesel gensets which  exacerbate air quality.

Energy & Transportation Sector:

Energy sector doesn’t fair good either. Though India has made significant Renewable energy supporting policies, we rely primarily on coal based thermal power plants. Indian thermal power plants are one of the most polluting, as they don’t meeting emission norms and standards (citing high cost for pollution control equipment), and are backed by a lax government.

A “typical” day in Delhi

Transportation is also emerging as an ugly topic as Indian cities are choked by private vehicles in recent years. Its’ quite hard to cite an urban household now without a private vehicle. High private vehicle usage leads to tailpipe emissions, increased dependency on imported fossil fuels, more traffic jams and wastage of precious time. Poorly planned & executed infrastructure projects (Gandhipuram flyover at coimbatore is the prime example), and the ailing public transportation industry is costing dear in terms of health, money and time to an average Indian commuter.

Most of rural India still uses dirty fuels in kitchen which leads to Indoor air pollution (IAP). IAP is quite a challenge as it can cause eye irritation and breathing issue while affecting women the most. The shift away from a traditional biogas based system has proved futile. The Government must push for self-dependency for households by relying on biogas from organic waste (can be found in tonnes at the Gazipur landfill at Delhi).

Air pollution & climate change:

Air pollution plays it part in climate change too. Black carbon can accelerate global warming and glacier melting as it provides a positive feedback to climate change. White color reflects sunlight whereas when black carbon particulates deposit on ice, they absorb light & heat, leading to glacier melting. CO2 & Methane which don’t pose any direct health hazard increase the heat trapping potential of atmosphere thereby warming the planet.

Why are we failing to combat air pollution?

The blame for aforementioned issues fall on Poor planning & lack of co-ordinated execution. Urbanisation & agricultural failure has packed cities with a burgeoning population whereas, cities in developing countries have simply failed to plan and adapt. If we analyse the design of most cities, cars are given more priority than pedestrianism. So its’ actually incentivising private vehicle usage while life is often in danger for a pedestrian whose space is ransacked by shopkeepers and unruly drivers. Indian public transportation remains as unpredictable as the Indian rain forecast, barring few cities.

To whom does the road belong to?

Waste management is the most pathetic of all, which emits particulates and other chemicals, foul odor and Methane into atmosphere. It’s not just Indian cities, even developed nations like the US & Canada dump inorganics in developing nations. Urban bodies also don’t regulate industries and energy sector for using clean fuel and meeting emission standards. It can be clearly noted that the root cause of air pollution is the failure of adequate planning from different departments – It is the failure of waste management, pedestrianism and failed industry policy, and above all, failed governance that is leading to air pollution! The issue is multi-dimensional & multi-departmental; One department’s action will not be suffice; what we need is a planned and co-ordinated action.

Ghazipur Landfill in Delhi

Delegating power and increased finance to Urban Local Bodies can be the only solution. A strong panel on air pollution has to be formed which should have power to act and direct ULB’s independently. Though the government tried out NCAP – National Clean Air Program -where 100 cities are to reduce PM 2.5 levels by 33% by 2024 through action plans, experts opine that it’s a half-hearted measure. Currently, it’s a daunting task for India to emulate what China did in 2013. There are positive signs though – recent one being pedestrianisation of Ajmal Khan  Road in Karol Bagh where PM levels came down by one-fourth. In order to make this work, a slew of government departments have to work together – councillors, PWD officials, traffic police, Urban planning department and even shopkeepers are few actors in this initiative. If we can emulate this kind of collaboration and coordinated action among different departments, providing clean air might not be onerous.

Public awareness:

The smog of ignorance is perhaps the most dangerous of all. Most people, particularly those in low-income group are oblivious to air pollution. Still, most don’t recognise Air Quality Index – a color coded index to warn citizens on poor air. Also, the government is concentrating only on urban areas – while even villages have poor air quality. So, a nation-wide campaign & action, on the lines of Swachh Bharat is desperately needed. Absence of detailed action on air pollution in manifestos of political parties are also a concern.


Breathing quality air is a fundamental right and if development means compromising with nature’s gift of air, water and soil, then we will need to serious reconsider the present concept of “development”. As quoted beautifully by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari in his book “Sapiens”, Despite possessing god-like abilities, we are not sure of what we want. And is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible Gods who don’t know what they want?