This combination of pictures created on November 13, 2018 shows (top) an installation depicting a giant set of lungs at Sir Ganga Ram hospital in New Delhi, Nov. 3; and (bottom) the same installation in New Delhi on Nov. 13, after 10 days exposed to the polluted air of the Indian capital. Smog kills more than one million Indians every year and Delhi has the worst air of any major city on the planet, the World Health Organization says. A giant pair of artificial lungs was set up outside the Sir Ganga Ram hospital and fitted with filters to demonstrate the damaging effects of smog in the Indian capital. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)

Even as bad air has begun to directly impact lives, India still lacks a sense of national distress and urgency to the looming threat of irreversible damage caused by it, writes Priyanka Bhardwaj.

Since December 2017, when an Indo-Sri Lankan cricket match in New Delhi was retrieved at the last minute with the introduction of face masks, pollution levels have only registered a steady rise.

Much before the inversion of atmospheric layers during winters the entire North India got enveloped in a thick blanket of cold smog due to burning of crop stubble and fire crackers besides the regular types of vehicular, industrial and other pollution.

Reiterating this risk, the latest World Health Organization (WHO) study reveals that India has 9 of the 10 worst cities in the world in terms of atmospheric pollution, with 6 northern cities along with New Delhi enjoying top positions.

It cited the number of deaths, due to polluted air, of children below 5 years at 500,000.

If another report by ‘Global Burden of Disease’ were to be believed deaths, due to air pollution are at 1 out of 8, and in absolute terms 1,200,000 persons.

These estimates are in consonance with the warning of Energy Policy Institute, University of Chicago, that residents of New Delhi are expected to lose nearly a decade from their lives if quality of air in the city failed to meet the WHO standards of particulate matter (PM) 2.5 of 25 micrograms per cu meter or less.

The greatest threat to health is posed by toxins that are PM2.5 (particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers) as they can penetrate deep into a person’s lungs or cardiovascular system.

The country’s mean, at PM 2.5 of 90 micrograms/cubic meter, is the worst in the world, with almost 77% of the population exposed to significant air pollution that causes 1.9 million deaths annually, in addition to the millions suffering from respiratory and related health conditions.

The moot question therefore remains if political will, big businesses, philanthropists and the citizenry will hastily move towards a concrete action plan or the Supreme Court will be forced to push the change, such as in the instances of adoption of CNG as a fuel, implementation of the emission standards, shifting polluting industries out of the capital, or shutting down coal-based power plants in the capital.

During the killer smog of 2016 too, the apex court had to direct the Ministry and Environment & Forests (MoEF) to calibrate an air quality index to classify conditions as “poor,” “very poor” and “severe” and prepare an emergency action plan as per the severity of the problem and a year round comprehensive action plan.

The recent center-led decontrol of fuel prices that reversed dieselization of cars which had contributed to 75% of PM 2.5 generated by vehicles, replacement of solid fuels with LPG with the distribution of LPG cylinders to over 50 million households as per the Ujjwala Scheme, roll out of BS-VI emission norms, and plans to convert agri-waste into ethanol (burning of agri-waste is another major cause of air pollution in Delhi) also were steps in this direction.

Government spokespersons have said that a concept note on National Clean Air Program (NCAP), involving all stakeholders, is also in the works, and “New India at 75,” a strategy paper by Niti Ayog, the central government’s foremost think-tank, has recommended ambitious targets to be achieved by 2022-’23 by curbing air pollution by 20-30%.

It has pitched for “stringent civil penalties to strengthen enforcement” of all environment-related acts to keep water, soil and forests safe and lowering hazardous PM2.5 levels within the National Ambient Air Quality Standards in all 102 ‘non-attainment cities’ — Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Varanasi, Kanpur, Lucknow, Allahabad, Patna, Gaya, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Chandigarh, Jaipur, Patiala, Jalandhar, Ludhiana and Hyderabad among others.

Additionally, it underlines India’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) pledge under the Paris Agreement on climate change to fulfill the 175 GW of renewable energy target.

While the paper talks of source apportionment, strengthening of air quality monitoring stations and setting up of Air Information Center for data analysis, interpretation and dissemination, it fails to elaborate on specific sector-wise action plan.

Notwithstanding the Indian administration’s commitments, its implementation record has, historically, been far from credible.

In its recent reply to a query the MoEF & Climate Change admitted the administration has still not conveyed to the states on how to accomplish NDCs to offset at least 2.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.

This reveals the authorities’ lack of appreciation of ecosystem services, including air pollution removal, carbon sequestration, cooling air temperatures and providing aesthetic beauty to the urban landscape, rendered by trees, plants and forests, and their close association with the air quality.

The overall health impacts of green environments that include avoidance of dozens of incidences of human mortality and acute respiratory symptoms cannot be overemphasized.

Yet, only in last year in the upmarket South Delhi, almost 17,000 mature trees were uprooted to make way for commercial complexes and adjacent Gurugram witnessed an axing of 15,000 trees besides 2,000 more that were felled only for canters of an auto-major to ply.

It has taken massive demonstrations by citizens to pressurize the government to abandon its plans two proposed link road projects from Delhi to Gurugram cutting across 380 acres Aravalli Biodiversity Park, a deemed forest, and one of the few breeding grounds of the majestic Indian Eagle Owl and the elusive Savanna Nightjar in the NCR.

With the fate of 10,000 trees to widen the Sohna Road, and another 15,000 trees for the development of Dwarka expressway also doomed, environmentalists rue the inefficacy of replanting schemes that would be conducted far from the city that loses its trees, in turn aggravating the ecological catastrophe and accruing of lower net carbon rate from saplings or seedlings.

Accentuating the need to address the biggest environment caused public health crisis the apex court advises reassessment of funding priorities, by allocating more towards preventing air pollution rather than treatments and widening its scope.

Time is already running out as evident in the dipping of international tourists visiting the country and many foreign expats, especially those with children, opting for re-location outside India, citing risks to health due to notorious air.

Risk analysts, also, have raised the specter of investors fleeing Indian shores if pollution remains uncontrolled.