Confronting everyday sources of pollution across the country
The annual November smog in the National Capital Region (NCR) frames the air pollution crisis — its scale, sources and solutions — in ways that undermine the long-term efforts needed. Instead of letting this episodic manifestation guide policy action, we must focus on tackling the less visible, everyday air pollution across the country.
Delhi-NCR’s pollution levels witness two pronounced spikes every year — between late-October to mid-November, and again from late-December to mid-January. The first spike is attributable to stubble burning adding to the “baseload” of emissions from year-round sources that are unable to disperse due to stable meteorological conditions. The second spike is almost entirely due to the baseload and conditions being conducive to the formation of “secondary particles” from gaseous pollutants emitted by power plants, industries and vehicles in the region. Increased burning of wood and other solid fuels for heating is also an important factor during this time.
Alarming as these spikes are, we should not make them the threshold for what is deemed unacceptable, and normalise objectively high levels of pollution otherwise. Consider the first week of December this year. The air quality index (AQI) remained either “very poor” or “severe” (in other words, more than twice the national standards) in Kanpur and Lucknow all seven days, and in Patna for six days. In NCR, Ghaziabad witnessed “severe” AQI on six days, while levels in Delhi and Gurugram were “very poor” throughout. Howrah in West Bengal and Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh also experienced either “poor” or “very poor” air quality throughout the week. Indeed, air quality in much of the Indo-Gangetic Plain is “poor” or worse for half the year.
Our fixation with the November smog, therefore, misleads the way we approach this national public health crisis in three fundamental ways.
First, although over three-fourths of India’s population breathes air that does not meet the national standards, apocalyptic levels for a few weeks in the capital become the defining feature of the crisis. Instead, the defining feature ought to be the sheer everyday nature of it, across the country. Research shows that the average exposure to air pollution is similar in rural and urban India. Given that two-thirds of our population is rural, a whopping 75% of the 1.1 million deaths attributable to air pollution in India occur in villages, as per a Health Effects Institute assessment in 2018. Yet, in terms of monitoring air quality, rural areas remain a blindspot. In the absence of official data, the rural air pollution crisis does not get due acknowledgment, let alone proportionate attention.
Second, episodic sources get disproportionate blame, and year-round sources insufficient scrutiny. To be clear, stubble burning is certainly an important contributor in NCR for the few weeks during late October-mid November. But seen over the course of the year, this is only one of the major sources in the region, alongside vehicles, industries, and power plants, waste burning, and dust re-suspended due to vehicular movement and from construction activities. At a national level, household burning of solid fuels for cooking and other purposes forms the single largest source of outdoor pollution exposure, in addition to causing pollution indoors. All these sources need to be tackled in parallel to see meaningful improvements in air quality, in Delhi and elsewhere in India.
Third, it results in an excessive emphasis on emergency responses, and on entirely misguided and unscientific tech-fixes such as smog towers. The only way to reduce air pollution is to cut emissions at the source, throughout the year. Since the sources are so different from each other, the agencies responsible and the types of interventions needed also vary substantially. Developing effective sectoral policies and ensuring that these are implemented well require resources, systematic planning, and political will.
The onset of the November smog should be thought of as a symptom, not the disease. It is, however, an annual reminder that we have a long way to go.