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Air Pollution:GREAT DANGER TO LIFE, by Dhurjati Mukherjee,14 September 2007 Print E-mail
People And Their Problems

New Delhi, 14 September 2007

Air Pollution


By Dhurjati Mukherjee

The human impact on the environment world-wide has indeed been disastrous. In fact, the environmental problems have accentuated since the 90s thanks to the western-induced strategy of development and consumerist approach to life and living. This has resulted in between one-third and one-half of the land surface being altered by human activities, leading to the loss of biological and genetic diversity world wide.

Think. The concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has increased nearly 30 per cent since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Air pollution from cars and industrial establishments kills over half a million people annually in Third World cities while another 2.5 million people die from indoor pollution, mostly in rural areas. Global warming due to toxic gases has increased phenomenally and is slated to increase further in the coming years. The rapid decline in forests at an alarming pace has resulted in various problems affecting the atmosphere and the environment.

At the present juncture, most Indians are exposed to dangerous levels of highly toxic gases, including carcinogenic organic compounds, sulphur and its fumes through the air they breathe. The levels of air-borne suspended particulate matter recorded in the large metro cities, especially Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai far exceeded the air quality standards adopted by the country and other developing countries.

A few years ago, two independent analyses estimated that urban air pollution in the country could be responsible for about 40,000 premature deaths annually primarily due to human exposure to elevated levels of particulate matter. Not only that. The Community Environment Monitoring (CEM) report titled ‘Smokescreen Ambient Air Quality in India’ (released in June 2006) found that the country is “pathetically behind in terms of infrastructure to safeguard its environment or health of people from air pollution”.

Shockingly, the report pointed out that India’s air pollution monitoring is primitive and the world’s fourth largest economy has no standards for most of the toxic and commonly found air pollutants. Worse, the air in the country is unfit to breathe.

The study observed that compared to 1997, the carbon monoxide levels were down by 32 per cent and the sulphur dioxide levels by 39 per cent. While the change has been remarkable, it has lulled regulators into complacency. The air has never been monitored for toxic gases and has therefore never been regulated for the same, the report pointed out with special reference to Delhi.

Automobile emissions of particulate matter and oxides of nitrogen and sulphur account for more than 60 per cent of the air pollution load in our cities. In fact, auto mobilization in the country has led to critical SPM levels, exceeding one-and-a-half times of the permissible standard in the 57 per cent of monitored Indian cities. So pervasive is the phenomenon that even smaller cities have become its victim. India’s top ten hotspots include Raipur, Kanpur, Alwar and Indore not to mention the congested metropolises.

Recently a comparative study of the air pollution levels in 17 cities undertaken by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) found respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM) and suspended particulate matter (SPM) levels above the national standards. In these cities, the number of vehicles has increased by about 4 per cent since 2000.

Delhi, the first city to implement the clean air initiatives, still has critical levels of RSPM and SPM in the residential areas. The SPM level has hovered around 333 ug/ms since 2000 when the number of vehicles in the Capital were around 30 lakhs. Obviously, the 15 lakh new vehicles that have been added to the Capital’s roads have to shoulder the blame for the current state of affairs. Moreover, a jump in the registration of diesel vehicles has led to an increase in the level of nitrogen oxide in 2006 to even higher than the pre-1995 era, when pollutants had chocked Delhi.

The study indicates the disturbing times ahead for India’s economic capital, Mumbai where the RSPM level has again shown an upward trend since 2003, taking the pollution level above the national standard of 60 ug/m3. In Agra, Lucknow and Kolkata the particulate matter has witnessed a slight upward trend.

The situation is particularly quite bad in Kolkata with the RSPM 1.5 times the national standard because of inadequate road space, thanks to poor maintenance and the entry of innumerable highly pollutant commercial vehicles inside the city. In fact, automobiles alone contribute 30 per cent to the city’s air pollution load.  

While the CPCB study admits that the increasing number of vehicles is the new challenge for acceleration of the air pollution, environmental groups such as the Centre for Science & Environment (CSE) attribute the reason to rampant violation of pollution standards, which are not enforced by the regulatory authorities.

Commissioned to study the impact of the Supreme Court’s direction to the Government to implement pollution abatement programmes since 1995, the CPCB has urged the Government to prepare action plans regarding restricting the entry of commercial vehicles (and even inter-state buses) into cities, phasing out of in-use vehicles, encouraging alternative fuels and giving incentives for clean air technologies.    

Apart from this, indoor air pollution, resulting from chulhas burning wood, coal and animal dung as fuel has been another big problem. It claims 5 lakh lives in India every year, most of whom are women and children. Burning solid fuels emit carbon monoxide, particulates, benzene and formaldehyde, which can result in pneumonia, asthma, blindness, lung cancer, TB and low birth weight.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) India accounts for 80 per cent of the 600, 000 premature deaths that occur in South-East Asia annually due to exposure to indoor air pollution. Nearly 70 per cent of the rural households do not even have proper ventilation!

The WHO programme has planned smokeless chulhas or liquid cooking gas cylinders for the rural poor. Nearly $ 650 million would be needed to change the way most of the world cooks. A simple mechanism promoting such chulhas and improving the ventilation can reduce the incidents of indoor pollution deaths by half. The WHO goal is to achieve this by 2015. However, so far it has managed only to raise just 10 per cent of the necessary funds. A lot more needs to be done in this regard.

Air pollution has affected a significant section of the population, especially those living in slums, squatter settlements and pavements. The increase in cardio-vascular and other diseases, including asthma, bronchitis and even lung cancer, has witnessed a significant rise.

As is well known, the oxides of sulphur and nitrogen cause breathing problems while carbon monoxide hampers oxygen transport in the body. In the lungs, oxygen gets attached to the haemoglobin present in the blood. When carbon monoxide is inhaled, it combines with haemoglobin to form carboxyhaemoglobin. As a result, less haemoglobin is available for transporting oxygen. This causes headaches and, in extreme cases, death.

In sum, controlling the air quality is thus imperative. More rigid regulatory standards need to be maintained and the CPCB should join hands with the State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs) to ensure that air quality is closely monitored and fines imposed on all agencies and individuals for violating the rules and environmental standards.

In the urban centres, more efficient and non-polluting public transport as also non-mechanized modes have to be promoted. If Paris can have 200 km of bicycle paths with 250,000 people using them, so can Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata. However, in the rural areas, there is need to promote smokeless chulhas for which the Government should come out with a subsidy scheme and also ensure that each house should have some form of ventilation. ---- INFA

 (Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)


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