An analysis of Nasa satellite data released last week on particulate matter had a severe warning for India: For the first time in this century, the average particulate matter exposure was higher for India than that for China. Though this news came after only a few weeks of sustained public engagement on air pollution in December and January, the report, released by Greenpeace, seems to have been unfortunately lost in the country’s manic news cycle. As a part of its recommendations, the NGO said since pollution travels hundreds of kilometers, there should be national, regional and city-level action plans with measurable targets to lower pollution levels. China’s strong measures, the report added, to curb pollution have contributed to the biggest year-on-year air quality improvement on record; while in contrast, India’s pollution continued a decade-long increase to reach the highest level on record.
Here is why the report needs to be taken seriously: According to the World Health Organization, India is home to 13 out of 20 most polluted cities in the world with deteriorating air pollution levels during the past decade, particularly in North India. Greenpeace has also revealed that as many as 15 of the 17 Indian cities with National Air Quality Index stations showed levels of air pollution that far exceeded the prescribed Indian standards and that 23 of the 32 stations across India are showing more than 70% above the national standards, putting public health at risk.
The central government has often claimed that while development is its key target, pollution will also get the required attention. In fact, in April, while launching India’s first air quality index, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India needed to be sensitive towards nature and the environment. What needs to be seen now is whether the central government walks the talk in the Budget by taking some effective measures like lowering duties on hybrid vehicles so that more and more people can buy them and whether it makes solar panels cheaper so that they become cost-effective for people wishing to install them for clean power. Today, you need to invest Rs 1 lakh for generating 1 kW of power. If this investment could be cut to say, Rs 50,000, it will push more and more people to install them. There could be other incentives also. For example, Bangladesh has decided to give discounts on electricity and property tax bills to households generating solar power. To tackle air pollution, the government also needs to invest hugely in urban mass transport, especially buses, which, unlike metros, can provide last-mile connectivity. In addition, its routes can also be retrofitted to the ever-changing landscape of urban India.