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India's other 'gas chambers'

Ashutosh PandeyDecember 18, 2015

New Delhi’s reputation as one of world’s worst polluters is yet again in the spotlight. But is the sole attention on the Indian capital preventing policymakers from reining in India’s other major offenders?

A factory chimney in a residential area emits smoke as haze casts a blanket over Bangalore
Image: Getty Images/AFP/D. Sarkar

A record level of smog and subsequent desperate makeshift remedial measures have once again underscored Delhi's dubious distinction as one of the world's top polluters. But with all the attention once again being showered on the Indian capital, the country's other polluted cities risk remaining in the shadow.

Rapid urbanization, fossil-fuel-driven economic growth and a steep rise in demand for automobiles have severely impacted on the air quality across India in the past two decades. The surge in pollutants has led to a sharp rise in respiratory diseases.

"Air pollution is not a Delhi-specific problem. It is a regional and national problem. This is a national health emergency," Sunil Dahiya, a campaigner for Greenpeace India, told DW.

Dubious honor

The World Health Organization (WHO) said in a report published in May last year that cities in India were among the most polluted in the world. The WHO report, which examined pollution levels in about 1,600 cities in 91 countries between 2008 and 2013, placed Delhi at the top of the list. The Indian cities of Patna, Gwalior and Raipur followed Delhi in the ignominious list of world's worst polluters. In fact, 13 Indian cities made it into the top 20.

Alarmed by the deteriorating air conditions in Delhi, the Supreme Court of India earlier this month imposed an interim ban on the registration of some diesel cars, banned ransport vehicles that are more than 10 years old from entering the city and directed all taxis to switch to compressed natural gas. The order followed the Delhi government's decision to experiment with road-space rationing based on registration numbers.

But while Delhi's hazardous levels of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) - small particles that pose the greatest threat to lungs - is finally getting some attention from local and central authorities, pollution is yet to make it into the discourse in the regional capitals.

"We are hoping that this pressure that has built up in Delhi today for some action will be able to catalyze a nationwide change," Anumita Roychowdhury, the executive director of the New Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment (CSE), told DW.

Move over, Beijing

As many as 15 of the 17 cities studied by Greenpeace India showed levels of air pollution far in excess even of the prescribed Indian standards, which are much more lenient than the WHO guidelines. The study showed that the average level of PM 2.5 in regional hubs such as Lucknow, Ahmedabad and Faridabad was almost as high as the levels seen in Delhi between April and November this year.

The study showed that seven of those cities recorded higher levels of toxic pollutants than Beijing and Jinan, two of the most polluted cities in China.

An Indian bystander watches as smoke rises from a cast iron factory at Howrah on the outskirts of Kolkata
Many factories in industrial hubs on the outskirts of Indian cities don't adhere to pollution normsImage: Getty Images/AFP/D. Chowdury

"There are many industrial hubs around the Indian cities. Many of the industries in these hubs are not adhering to pollution norms set by the authorities. Even those norms which are there are not stringent enough," said Dahiya. "Then there are huge thermal power plants, which are a major source of particulate matter."

Severe health implications

The cases of Acute Respiratory Infection (ARI) have jumped by almost a third to about 34.8 million in the past five years, according to India's National Health Profile 2015. The highest numbers of cases of this breathing problem last year were reported from the states of Kerala and Rajasthan, both of which are extremely popular among foreign tourists.

While pollution levels in Delhi are actively monitored, most other big Indian cities do not even have a reliable air-quality monitoring system in place. This puts at risk the lives of millions of people who unknowingly venture into places with hazardous levels of pollutants at any given point of time.

"The awareness is still missing among people so that they can protect themselves. It's the responsibility of the government agencies that they make them aware about the problems related to breathing polluted air," Dr. Sandeep Dave, a surgeon from the regional capital of Raipur, told DW.

India has the highest rate of deaths from chronic respiratory diseases in the world, according to the WHO. In 2012, more than 150 people in every 100,000 died due to such diseases, almost eight times the deaths from such causes in Germany.

'National air-quality planning is needed'

Roychowdhury, however, says the smaller cities are much better-placed to address the problem, as a large segment of the population in these centers still does not drive cars.

Rickshaw pullers rest in the morning fog in New Delhi
Rickshaws are a popular mode of public transport in smaller Indian citiesImage: AP

"Smaller cities have a much higher share of walk and cycle trips, so if the government just invests in modernizing and organizing the existing public transport systems, then it will be able to prevent the erosion of non-motorized and public transport ridership and slow down the transport rush," said Roychowdhury.

There is an urgent need to set up pollution-monitoring centers across the country, as air-quality data is currently available for just some 20 cities, far too few considering that India has more than 50 urban centers with a population of a million or more. This would facilitate issuance of real-time health advisories to the people.

"We now need a very strong national air-quality planning process so that there is a clear framework at the national level on how they would want cities across the country to roll out their action plans," said Roychowdhury.