The World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) latest finding that air pollution is the world’s biggest environmental health risk should be of particular concern to India, given that its air pollution is among the world’s worst. Of the 20 most polluted cities, 13 are said to be in India. And most cities in India violate the PM10 standard. The results of Delhi’s dubious distinction of being the most polluted city in the world — also certified by the WHO — are beginning to show. Forty per cent of the city’s children have weak lungs, a survey has shown. Some cities have shown some improvement in this regard, but those are the exception, not the norm.
Two factors can be cited as having brought about this state of affairs. First is the growing purchasing power of Indians living in cities. The car was a luxury product for a middle-class Indian even two decades ago. Not so now. And the results are now showing in all the big cities of India though Delhi had got a few years’ respite because of the transition to CNG in 2001. The vehicles that cannot ply in Delhi because of court edicts on environmental standards are sold in satellite towns around the metropolis, thus in a way allowing the problem to perpetuate. The second problem is the global community’s inability to switch to cleaner, alternative sources of fuel and reduce the thermal power plants’ dependence on coal, said to be the dirtiest fuel. Other sources of pollution, such as fuelwood and biomass burning, have never received adequate attention.
The first step should be to discourage people from using private vehicles and opting for public transport. This can be done through hiking parking charges and making people pay for contributing to the volume of traffic on the roads. Industrial pollution, however, is less easy to reduce. Here the switch to solar energy, of which the government is targeting a generation of 100 GW by 2019, can be an answer. Unless this is done, we really cannot breathe easy.