It was supposed to be my lucky escape from Delhi the morning after the Diwali smokefest. To reach the airport, I had to cut through a haze that lay over the city like a shroud of obeisance to the collective firepower of my fellow Delhi residents. The city would remain enveloped in smog for days, choking even the hardiest of respiratory systems.
But my lungs were meant to be in a safer place. From Guwahati airport, the smooth drive along Deepor Beel, a wetland under the Ramsar Convention, was greeted with crisp morning air. Windows rolled down, I finally breathed easy.
But it didn’t last.
On the National Highway 40 to Meghalaya, my car was soon tailing a nasty smoke-spewing diesel truck. Then, it became routine — serial ambushes featuring commercial and military vehicles belching fumes amid the incessantly swirling dust from broken roads all the way to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. Clearly, there was no escape from dirty air.
As estimated by the Centre for Science and Environment in 2013, even with limited air quality monitoring in the northeastern states, 68% of all cities and towns checked for pollution here had particulate matter levels higher than the prescribed limits. Greeted by locals wearing breathing masks during most of my journey across three of the seven sisters, I realised the air didn’t get any cleaner in three years.
Hill towns, anyway, have special challenges. The CSE study blamed higher elevation and inversion condition (when a layer of cool air at the surface is overlain by a layer of warmer air trapping pollutants close to the ground) for exacerbating breathing conditions. Roads in a perennial state of reconstruction and influx of ancient vehicles only make things worse.
Quoting studies by the Desert Research Institute, Nevada, USA, and NASA, the CSE stated that in cities such as Guwahati, about 70% of vehicles didn’t have emission clearance certificates and emitted excessive amounts of black carbon which had already increased daily temperature by 2 degrees Celsius.
This was indeed a sad story in the land where people otherwise care for nature. Mawlynnong in Meghalaya has been judged the cleanest village of Asia by successive surveys since 2002 and was praised by the Prime Minister in his Maan Ki Baat. In 2008, Sikkim was declared “Nirmal Rajya”, a state free from open defecation. Fishing is banned in many streams and rivers in Arunachal Pradesh. But foul air is something they don’t have a grip on.
Clearly, air pollution is a national crisis. The World Health Organization said that India had half of the world’s 20 most polluted cities. The Central Pollution Control Board’s data between 2002 and 2014 showed that all major cities in northern and central India — Gwalior, Kanpur, Ludhiana, Gwalior and Surat — have recorded a sharper increase in pollution as compared to Delhi, HT reported on November 2. Engines that are more than ten years old contributed 60% of vehicular pollution mainly because of ill-maintenance and poor emission standards.
While many towns and cities are still under the radar due to lack of monitoring, even the ones monitored don’t have clear pollution-fighting plans. India’s fight against air pollution has remained only Delhi-centric – whether it is judiciary-backed measures or belated action plans from the Centre and the state.
Even suburban towns have got little attention. Ghaziabad and Faridabad rank among the most polluted Indian cities but don’t monitor air-quality daily. Fumes from brick kilns, factories, thermal plants and construction dust foul the air unchecked. Polluting diesel trucks are fined only when they reach the Delhi border. As if air follows state boundary restrictions.
Increasing motorisation, lack of public transportation, differing fuel standards, lack of regulations on phasing out old vehicles, poor enforcement of emission norms, polluting industries and power stations, blazing dumpsites, unabated construction activities, biomass and stubble burning – the factors contributing to air pollution don’t differ much from cities to towns to even remote mountain hamlets.
We need to chalk out a national policy, frame a time-bound action plan, and employ a strict monitoring and enforcement system that holds good across the country. Otherwise, already gasping for breath in the big cities, we may soon have nowhere to turn to for clean air.
(The author is Metro Editor, Hindustan Times. She tweets at @shivaniwrites)