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Busting three myths holding us back from improving air quality

The problem of air pollution can broadly be categorised into two parts — indoor and outdoor. Fourteen of the 20 cities with the most polluted air in the world are from India.

gurgaon Updated: Nov 07, 2018 12:44 IST
gurugram,Delhi-NCR,NCR air quality
A commuter seen wearing mask as air pollution reaches hazardous level, at Khandsa road, in Gurugram, November 05, 2018. (Parveen Kumar / HT Photo )

Globally, air pollution kills over 65 lakh people every year. This is five times the number of another global killer – road accidents – which kills around 13 lakh people. In fact, the amount of lives lost due to air pollution is double the amount of lives lost due to serious conditions and diseases such as AIDS, TB and malaria combined. While we see a lot of talk and action with regard to these major diseases, there is hardly anything about air pollution, which is equally life threatening.

The problem of air pollution can broadly be categorised into two parts — indoor and outdoor. It is estimated that about half of the air pollution deaths take place due to poor fuel used in cooking. But, as the economic conditions improve, so does the cooking fuel. However, the other half of the deaths are linked to outdoor air quality, which is directly impacted by motor vehicles, power plants, industries, waste burning etc. In this case, as the income increases, so does the consumption and the quality of air, thereby, suffers inversely. Therefore, this is a much bigger and trickier problem to solve because on one side, there are multiple sources, and on the other side, there are economic arguments.

Fourteen of the 20 cities with the most polluted air in the world are from India. In fact, Delhi-NCR is the worst of the lot. One of the key reasons for this toxic air is PM 2.5, an ultra-fine particulate matter with a size of 2.5 micrometres. Just for comparison, PM2.5 is 40 times smaller than human hair. These particles often constitute toxic organic compounds and heavy metals. Due to their small size, they can travel deep into our body and infiltrate our lungs and even our bloodstream, causing serious diseases like lung cancer.

Therefore, the question is even with so much knowledge, why are we not able to do anything to improve our air quality? Let me explain three myths that’s holding us back

Pollution is a seasonal problem

Unfortunately, the air pollution conversation mostly happens around stubble burning and Diwali time, giving it a seasonal flavour. But is air pollution seasonal in Delhi-NCR? The answer, unfortunately, is no, because as per reports, Delhi experienced zero ‘good’ quality air days between March and May 2018. This basically means that air pollution is now a year-round phenomenon in our cities. Episodic events like stubble burning, Diwali and climatic conditions aggravate the problem but the air quality in Delhi-NCR is bad all-round the year. Period. Therefore, addressing the issue of farm fire and fireworks during Diwali are important but, to emphasize on air pollution throughout the year is equally necessary because air pollution is all around the year and not seasonal.

Increasing roads will reduce pollution

Gurugram is currently in the middle of a debate or protest on creating a link through the biodiversity park. Agencies and consultants proposing this road think it will reduce congestion and improve air quality, even if it means destroying the urban forest, but creating more roads does just the opposite — it brings in more traffic due to the latent demand. With more traffic comes more emissions, which significantly decreases the air quality. Therefore, the transport solution to air pollution is not in creating more roads but restricting roads. Cities need to create a dense network of streets and not widen highways or expressways. They also need to rapidly increase the supply of public transport and shift to cleaner fuels for vehicles and switch to zero emission vehicles like electric.

Nothing can be done to improve air quality

Yes, outdoor air pollution is a complex issue and had it been simple, you would not have been reading this part of the article. However, this doesn’t mean that nothing can be done. The problem is that air flow does not follow any administrative or political boundaries. Therefore, it is important to effectively address the air pollution in Delhi or Gurugram and action must be taken in the ‘air shed’ area of Greater Delhi. And, this is where things get complicated because it means that state governments of Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan must come together for solving this crisis as one state alone cannot achieve substantive change. In fact, cities like Beijing, Los Angeles, Paris, etc, have shown that improving air quality is possible provided we do the right things at the right time.

Air pollution is an epidemic and needs a full-fledged war to combat its menace. We need central and state governments to come together to solve this menace. While economic development is important, it should not come at the cost of human lives, because, as they say, “You can’t count all your money by holding your breath.” Can you?

(Amit Bhatt is the director of integrated transport, WRI India)

First Published: Nov 07, 2018 12:44 IST