The Greenpeace report on air pollution in Indian cities comes at a time when politics and elections are dominating the news cycle; Diwali smog has long gone, lifting with it the sense of urgency with which various reports say air pollution needs to be dealt with.
The Plume Labs App on a friend's phone still shows Delhi air quality as "extremely serious", and identifies particulate matter, ozone and nitrogen oxide as key pollutants; its recommendation for outdoor activities, and that includes eating out in fancy open-air restaurants, is "take it easy", which can be translated to "avoid".
It is one of the better-air days, because till few days ago it was advising strictly against any outdoor activity.
|Despite a crisis of this scale, the response to the pollution problem is so muted that it is hardly noticeable. Photo: Reuters|
But as long as the smog pressed against the city doesn't force on us the realisation of inhaling pollutants many times more than their safe limits, the air we breathe doesn't bother us. Expect governments to be bothered even less.
In the last few years there's been more conversation around the quality of air we breathe than before, but it has largely focussed on Delhi. It doesn't make Delhi the only city with unbreathable air, rather just highlights the fact that smaller cities have few equipments, if they have them at all, to measure the quality of air their residents breathe.
The Greenpeace report highlights that air pollution is in fact a national problem, and that air in most of the Indian cities has way more pollutants than would be deemed safe.
For example, Delhi's annual PM 10 levels in 2015 averaged to 268 µg/m3 (60 microgram per metre cube) which is more than four times the maximum limit of 60 prescribed by NAAQS (the US National Ambient Air Quality Standards). At least 11 other cities had an annual PM 10 level higher than 200.
How many meet the NAAQS standard? Just 12 of the 137 cities analysed. And these numbers are only about PM 10, there are other pollutants that we haven't even talked about yet.
The gravity of the situation can be guessed by the fact that outdoor air pollution claims about 1.2 million lives a year in India; to put it a bit dramatically, 1.2 million people lose their life a year for breathing in this country.
It is almost 41 times more than global terrorism casualties in 2015, and more than two times that of lives lost in road accidents in India.
Despite a crisis of this scale, the response to the pollution problem is so muted that it is hardly noticeable. Delhi's Odd-Even experiment led to more political noise than results. But other cities haven't even made that noise.
Brace up for worse
Air pollution is real and it has reached alarming proportions. What's equally worrying is the lack of drastic measures that the crisis of this scale needs.
The Greenpeace report also offers a comparison of air pollution in major economies and what they are doing about it, and there are many red flags for India. Let's look at a simple India vs China comparison:
> Between 2010 to 2015, PM 2.5 levels in China have fallen by 17 per cent; in India, it has increased by 13 per cent
> China's PM 2.5 is consistently falling since 2011; India's is steadily increasing
> For PM 2.5 monitoring, China has 1,500 stations in 900 cities; India has just about 40
> China has set 2030 as the deadline for meeting national air quantity standards; we have no such deadline
> China has national, regional and city-level action plans with measurable five-year targets; India has seen action in individual cities with no measurable targets
This comparison shows how mammoth the task on hand is; the concern is that it is not being addressed as aggressively as it should. If the PM 2.5 levels kept increasing at the current rate, by 2020 we'll have 13 per cent more of it in our breath.
The fact that we reached this point despite repeated alarms by activists in the last decade points to the lack of political will.
After Diwali smog, Delhi residents took to streets for their right to breathe; about time the protests reached every city.