Fresh air and clear skies are a myth in urban India. Indian cities have turned into toxic gas chambers where pollution levels sometimes hit 30 times the permissible WHO safe limits. With such drastic pollution levels, Indians cities have gained worldwide infamy bagging top position in the latest list of world’s most polluted cities published by World Health Organisation.
The WHO in Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database lists 20 most polluted cities out of which top fourteen are from India. Kanpur tops the chart with the highest PM 2.5 levels at 173 while the other cities include Faridabad, Varanasi, Gaya, Patna, Delhi, Lucknow, Agra, Muzaffarpur, Srinagar, Gurgaon, Jaipur, Patiala, and Jodhpur—in that order.
PM 2.5 are small but harmful air particles that causes respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. The study says that 9 out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants. Around 7 million people die every year due to ambient and household air pollution affecting the poorest and marginalized people the most. Over 3 billion people, mostly women and children, breathe smoke from polluting stoves and fuels in their homes.
Most of the Indian cities featuring in the list are in the landlocked northern region with adverse climatic conditions and high concentration of polluting activities. Increasing pollutants in the air are accompanied by respiratory diseases making India home to about 2 crore asthma patients. Taj Mahal too is paying the price of India’s increasing pollution, decaying slowly, bearing the brunt of pollution.
Pollution has become a national health crisis in India requiring urgent intervention. The WHO report praised the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana Scheme that provided 37 million women living below the poverty line with free LPG connection helping them to switch from smoke generating chullahs to clean household energy. More such initiatives are required along with strong compliance of provisions of National Clean Air Action Plan.
India needs massive energy transition across industries and households. Lessons can be learnt from China that has been able to bend the curve of its pollution levels. Some key measures that India can adopt from China are – nationwide transition to Euro-V, cap on nation-wide coal consumption, massive efforts to reduce power plant and industrial emissions, and capped car sales in key cities through introduction of vehicle quota system or license plate ban. Along with stringent measures, India requires to expand its real-time air quality monitoring, especially that of PM 2.5.
Air pollution is just the tip of the iceberg of India’s pollution problems. With rivers turning into waste disposal nullahs, degrading soil health, melting glaciers, toxic groundwater, pollution levels in India are reaching unbearable levels. Pollution does not recognize boundaries, so compliance measures needs to gather momentum across the length and breadth of the country. Until then, don’t breathe and stay alive!