It’s time for a democratic demand for clean air
Last Thursday, Members of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha, which is currently in session, debated air pollution. Besides the National Capital Region, which continues to suffer many days of severe air pollution, large swathes of the Indo-Gangetic plain are affected too. An MP from Maharashtra complained that even in a city like Pune, the air quality index in Hinjewadi (a major Information Technology hub) was over 400. Delhi has implemented another round of the Odd-Even scheme although claims that air pollution has significantly abated are unverifiable because of data gaps. That elected representatives are choosing to raise the issue shows that creating a democratic demand for clean air is beginning to find salience.
Air pollution affects our health (there were 1.24 million related deaths in 2017) as well as economic growth. Using a 2013 World Bank estimate that the health cost of air pollution is 3% of the GDP, this amounts up to $80 billion as of 2018. Rather than being the engines of growth, our cities have become unliveable. However, change is possible. Our research suggests that 80% of India can breathe clean air if we adopted strong pollution controls. So, for a better tomorrow, here is my vision for India: By 2027 when India turns 80 as an independent nation, let us aim to reduce air pollution by 80% in 80 cities across India. Let’s call it Mission 80-80-80.
Air quality will not improve overnight. We need sustained and prioritised effort. After London’s great smog in 1952, it took until the 1980s for smoke control programmes to be completed.Recently, London launched the ultra-low emission zone initiative to massively reduce vehicular emissions. The US Clean Air Act (1970), in part, responded to infamous air quality in Los Angeles. Interventions have been evolving for half a century even as LA experienced 145 days of unhealthy air in 2017. China got serious about air pollution from 2015.
When air quality worsens in the NCR, a graded response action plan kicks in. The National Clean Air Programme lists 134 actions to reduce particulate matter by 20%-30% in 122 cities by 2024. These are good starts but have three limitations: they are not year-round solutions, the actions have not been prioritised, and they are not ambitious enough.
To fulfil Mission 80-80-80, we need action at three levels: planning, enforcement, and political. Solutions have to be tailor made for sector-specific sources of pollution: vehicles, road and construction dust, industries, urban waste, and agricultural residue. Actions must be sequenced into what should be done immediately and what could unfold over the short, medium and long run.
First, air quality plans must be developed at an airshed level. Air pollution does not respect administrative boundaries.Airsheds are areas where topography and meteorology impact the concentration of pollutants. We need regional airshed management authorities with powers to coordinate across jurisdictions. An airshed approach would help to prioritise regions needing urgent attention as well as increase the likelihood that sectoral interventions (say, regulating vehicular emissions) would succeed.
A national airshed management authority could monitor overall progress and help reduce capacity and resource constraints for regional agencies and interventions.
Secondly, enforcement remains weak without active monitoring and emergency response. An immediate priority is to create Pollution Control Rooms (PCRs) and Rapid Response Teams. Citizens should be able to call into the PCRs and report on flagrant violations, say construction waste disposal or industries that are found flouting pollution control norms. Another immediate action is to clamp down on open burning of urban waste. Of moderate difficulty are measures such as dust suppression systems at construction sites or ensuring that power plants are retrofitted with pollution control technologies. Similarly, more effort is needed for awareness and training programmes on in-situ crop residue management to reduce stubble burning.
The hardest goal to achieve is continuous political engagement. A multi-party political process must recognise that air pollution is a national, not a city specific problem and is costing us lives and livelihoods. Then we can have a serious debate on reforming agricultural pricing, so that farmers can shift away from cultivating paddy in Punjab and Haryana, whose stubble is then burnt. Political consensus is needed to implement new parking rules, impose congestion pricing or pay for major increase in public transport infrastructure in cities.
Finally, the vision and strategy for Mission 80-80-80 needs to be communicated to the public. The haplessness of citizens betrays a trust deficit that can be plugged if bureaucrats, enforcement agencies and political leaders periodically outline steps taken, impact expected, future measures, and what citizens can do to help.
Air pollution is a wicked problem but not insolvable. It’s time to breathe deep and begin.
Dr Arunabha Ghosh is CEO, Council on Energy, Environment and Water, and a TED Talk speaker.The views expressed are personal. Watch his TED Talk: http://bit.ly/Mission80-80-80