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India 'neglecting' air, water, vegetation as its world air quality index ranking decelerates

By Dr Gurinder Kaur*

The World Air Quality Report 2023, prepared by a Swiss technology company IQAir, was released on 19 March 2024. According to this report, India is the third most polluted country in the world after Bangladesh and Pakistan, and the capital of India, New Delhi, is the most polluted capital in the world.
This report also stated, the concentration of PM 2.5 is 54.4 in the country's air quality and in the national capital it is 92.7 micrograms per cubic meter. It is more than 10 and 18 times higher in the country and its capital respectively than the standard of 5 micrograms per cubic meter set by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
In 2023 India's ranking has gone down 5 places in the world as compared to 2022, when India placed on 8th rank on the basis of PM 2.5 at 53.3 micrograms per cubic metre.The country's capital has consistently retained its status as the world's most polluted capital since 2018.
According to this report, the most polluted city in the world, Begusarai, is also located in India in the state of Bihar, where PM 2.5 has a concentration of 118.9 micrograms per cubic meter that is 23.7 times higher than the standard set by WHO.The report also reveals that 13 of the world's 15 most polluted cities and 83 of the top 100 most polluted cities are in India.
The data in this report shows that India's condition in air pollution is getting worse day by day. This World Air Quality report is based on data collected from 30,000 air quality monitering sites from 134 countries. The concentration of PM 2.5 in the capitals of Puerto Rico (SanJaun 2.7), NewZealand (Wellington 3.1), Australia (Canberra 3.8), Iceland (Reykjavik 3.9), Bermuda (Hamilton 4.1), Estonia (Tallin 4.6), and Finland (Helsinki 4.9) meets the criteria of WHO.
PM 2.5 is generally considered to be the most harmful air pollutant when it enters into our body through breath, then it causes diseases like asthma, brain stroke, heart attack, skin allergies, and lung infection. The average age of people is also affected by air pollution.
A 2021 study by the Energy Policy Institute of Chicago, revealed that air pollution also affects life expectancy of a person . This research stated, the higher the level the air pollution in a place, the lower is the life expectancy of the people there. Due to high levels of air pollution living in Delhi, the average age of the people could decrease by 11.9 years, while lower air pollution levels in the country's southern states less effect was recorded on the average lifespan of the people living there.
Clean air, water, and food are necessary for the existence of human life. A man can survive a month or two without food, two or three days without water, but not even a few minutes without air. Air is necessary for breathing, but if a person breathes polluted air, he/she cannot protect himself/ herself from diseases in any way.
PM means particulate matter and 2.5 refers to its size -- 2.5 microns or 30th diameter of a hair. The smaller size PM 2.5 of pollution makes it more lethal. Due to their small size, these particles enter the human body through inhalation and cause lung, heart attack and stroke diseases.
According to a study by Misbath Daouda, it also causes oxidative stress in the human body, which is linked to diseases ranging from Parkinson's to cancer. Air pollution also adversely affects the brain development of children. A research by Sundeep Santosh Salvi, Abhishek Kumar and others reveals that one out of three school-going children suffer from asthma due to high levels of air pollution in Delhi. Children's lungs are also affected by air pollution.
WHO, considering the lethal effect of PM 2.5, has reduced its concentration from 10 micrograms per cubic meter to 5 micrograms per cubic meter in 2021 as the safe limit for human health. The main sources of air pollution are the increasing number of vehicles, industrial units, thermal plants, construction works, air conditioners and other electronic equipment, garbage heaps, and burning of crop residues. Vehicles are responsible for 40 per cent of emissions of PM 2.5 in Delhi. Coal use in the National Capital Region was banned in January 2023 to control air pollution, but the region still burns 1.9 million tons of coal annually.
India has severely neglected natural resources like air, water, vegetation, giving priority to economic development, as a result of which 1.3 billion people of the country now live in places where the concentration of PM exceeds the safe limit set by WHO and 64 per cent of people live in areas where the air quality index exceeds the National Air Quality Standards.
Most European countries took a lead in the Industrial Revolution. At that time, the people in these countries linked increased air pollution to economic development. In December 1873, London was blanketed for a week in yellow fog (smog) so thick that people could not see their feet.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Mark Twain addressed his audience in a public lecture at that time, “I hear you , and so know that you are here and I am here, too, notwithstanding I am not visible”. He was of the opinion that this is a sign of economic development. This development resulted in 780 deaths in London that year.
In England, another heavy smog episode that happened in 1952, when 4,000 people died in one week due to air pollution and another 8,000 people died in the next month due to the negative effects of air pollution, but after learning lessons from that incident, the government of England decided to deal with air pollution by enacting and enforcing strict laws.
Most of the pollution is caused by fossil fuels and vehicles. Almost all European countries have smartened up public transport to reduce the number of private vehicles so that people prefer public vehicles to private vehicles. The Indian government should also take lessons from European countries to smarten up the public transport system across the country.
With the facility of public transport, on the one hand there will be relief from air pollution, on the other hand there will be a reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases, which will also make it easier to control the increasing temperature. Along with this, the Union and State governments should ensure installation of air purifiers in industrial units.
The defaulting units should be fined. Proper arrangements should be made at construction sites so that dust and soil particles do not pollute the environment. Garbage heaps should be compacted using scientific methods. Electricity should be generated from renewable sources instead of coal.
The number of trees should be increased to such an extent that area under forest cover becomes one third of the total area of the country.The Union and State governments should also keep a separate fund in the annual budget to deal with air pollution problems.
Cropping patterns in different regions of India should be based on the agro-climataic conditions there. In order to keep the environment clean, all Indian citizens should realise their duty in this regard so that the future of every citizen of the country is secured.
---
*Former Professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala

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