War against air pollution calls for comprehensive systemic changes

IANS Photo People walk past amid hazy weather conditions on Kartavya Path in New Delhi on Sunday, November 05 2023. (Photo: IANS/Wasim Sarvar)

People walk past amid hazy weather conditions on Kartavya Path in New Delhi on Sunday, November 05 2023. (Photo: IANS/Wasim Sarvar)

New Delhi, November 19 (IANS): Air quality management progress has been disappointingly sluggish, with persistently high levels of pollution posing a severe threat to public health.

Despite mounting scientific evidence, the severe health impacts of toxic air aren't being treated with the necessary seriousness. A scientific paper in Lancet Planetary Health highlighted that 1.7 million deaths in India in 2019 were attributed to air pollution.

"Separating official rhetoric from the broader national discourse on toxic air is crucial. While the Indian government is hesitant to acknowledge the link between air pollution and health issues, the public conversation should consider expert opinions and citizens' voices," Climate Activist Bhavreen Kandhari said.

To effectively combat the toxic air problem, a transformative shift is imperative -- a comprehensive, year-round systemic approach that goes beyond short-term measures.

This entails not only stringent regulations but also robust enforcement, investment in sustainable technologies, and public awareness campaigns.

"Official strategies lack a focus on health effects and often opt for short-term solutions like smog towers, which won't solve the pervasive smog issue. The national conversation tends to be fixated on specific times and locations, not particularly in Delhi, rather pan-India prioritizing an air shed approach," Kandhari said.

Tackling the root causes, such as vehicular emissions, industrial pollution, and agricultural practices, demands a coordinated effort from government bodies, industries, and citizens alike.

Kandhari said: "Various contributors, including construction, vehicular pollution, stubble burning, and industrial emissions, need attention and support, not only relative conversations each year. Questions must be raised about overlooked factors, such as the role of power plants in air pollution."

"For example; time to sow wheat is now, what are the government/s going to help with that? What action will be taken now, as actions now will reflect in the next year. Less cars & more buses, less buildings & more forests and trees, less roads & more footpaths/cycle spaces is the way forward through policy and strict implementation," she added.

She said that enforcement of emissions guidelines is lacking, and there's a need for hyper-local health impact data.

"Despite the launch of the National Clean Air Programme in 2019 and Commission for Air Quality Management, progress has been sluggish, with many cities failing to complete essential studies," Kandhari said.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) recently expressed dissatisfaction with states failing to fully comply with its earlier directives to address the deteriorating Air Quality Index (AQI).

Noting a lack of significant improvement in the pollution situation, the tribunal directed concerned authorities to review their approach, implement effective measures, and submit a detailed action taken report.

Earlier notices were issued to chief secretaries of states, including Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Bihar, and Jharkhand.

The tribunal took cognizance of the Central Pollution Control Board's air quality bulletins, which indicated 'severe,' 'very poor,' and 'poor' AQI levels in certain cities.

The AQI, measured between zero and 500, categorizes air quality from 'good' to 'severe plus.'

The tribunal's Chairperson Justice Prakash Shrivastava noted the AQI during November 3-9 and stated that authorities were lacking in making necessary efforts to improve air quality.

The tribunal stressed on the need for immediate remedial action and called for a review of long-term action plans mentioned in state reports. It directed chief secretaries to identify major pollution sources, take immediate steps for control, and file further action taken reports.

Highlighting the serious health effects, especially on infants and the elderly, the tribunal urged the authorities to address the issue with full seriousness. The matter is scheduled for further proceedings on November 23.

In a nutshell, only through sustained commitment and collaborative action can India hope to make significant strides in mitigating air pollution and safeguarding the well-being of its population.

"To effectively combat the toxic air problem, a comprehensive, year-round systemic approach is necessary, not only reactionary actions like GRAP, sprinklers, or shutting down schools," Kandhari said.