“The earth, the air, the land and the water are not an inheritance from our forefathers but on loan from our children. So we have to handover to them at least as it was handed over to us.” – Mahatma Gandhi

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP or UN Environment) annually organizes events for World Environment Day (WED), which encourages worldwide awareness and action for the protection of the environment. It is celebrated on 5 June in over 100 countries. China was the host of this year’s global World Environment Day celebrations with the theme, ‘Air Pollution’.

World Environment Day 2019 aims to urge governments, industry, communities and individuals to come together to explore renewable energy and green technologies, and improve air quality in cities and regions across the world. 

New data from World Health Organization (WHO) shows that 9 out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants. Every 5 seconds, somebody around the world dies prematurely as a result.  

Recent estimates reveal an alarming premature death toll of 7 million people every year caused by ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution, around 600,000 of whom are children. About 4 million of these deaths occur in Asia-Pacific alone. 

More than 90% of air pollution-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, mainly in Asia and Africa.

In India, a numbing 1.2 million deaths were a result of ‘air pollution’ in 2017-18.

Main Culprits of Air Pollution

In urban areas, most emissions come from vehicles, industry and construction, whereas in rural areas, a large part of the pollution stems from biomass (cooking) and waste (agriculture) burning. Other natural elements such as geographic, meteorological and seasonal factors also affect Air Quality. Overall, dust & construction contribute about 45% to the pollution in India (urban areas), which is followed by waste burning (rural areas).

Air Pollutants can be broadly classified under 4 heads:

* Industrial Pollution (smoke, dust, gases, fumes, aerosols and odorous substances)

* Vehicular Pollution (trucks, jeeps, cars, trains and airplanes)

* Fossil Fuel Combustion (sulphur dioxide emitted from the combustion of fuels like coal and petroleum)

* Household Air Pollution.

Ambient air pollution (unconfined portion of the atmosphere or outdoor air) alone caused around 4.2 million deaths in 2016, while household air pollution from cooking with polluting fuels and technologies caused an estimated 3.8 million deaths in the same period.

A whopping 68% of the vehicular pollutants are emitted by two wheelers in India. 

K. Sharat Chandra, CEO, Shirdi Sai Electricals Ltd. said, “In Industries, where the processing of waste is a cost-prohibitive one, some of the industries directly release the toxic waste into the environment. Due to industrial activities, a variety of poisonous gases like NO, SO2, NO2, SO3, Cl2, CO, CO2, H2SO4, etc. as well as volatile chemicals, dusts, etc. are released into the atmosphere causing acute pollution.”

As per WHO, around 3 billion people – more than 40% of the world’s population – still do not have access to clean cooking fuels and technologies in their homes, the main source of household air pollution. “Air pollution threatens us all, but the poorest and most marginalized people bear the brunt of the burden,” says Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO. “It is unacceptable that over 3 billion people – most of them women and children – are still breathing deadly smoke every day from using polluting stoves and fuels in their homes. If we don’t take urgent action on air pollution, we will never come close to achieving sustainable development.”

Why is Air Pollution such a Threat?

WHO recognizes that air pollution is a critical risk factor for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), causing an estimated one-quarter (24%) of all adult deaths from heart disease, 25% from stroke, 43% from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and 29% from lung cancer.

As per Our World In Data, India has 6.98% share (2016) of global carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions. 

David Boyd, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment said, “The right to a healthy environment is fundamental to human well-being and is legally recognized by over 150 States at the national and regional levels. It should be globally reaffirmed to ensure the enjoyment of this right by everyone, everywhere while upholding the human rights principles of universality and non-discrimination.” He called on states to take urgent action to improve air quality in order to fulfill their human rights obligations. 

“Many of the world’s mega-cities exceed WHO’s guideline levels for air quality by more than 5 times, representing a major risk to people’s health,” says Dr Maria Neira, Director of the Department of Public Health, Social and Environmental Determinants of Health, at the WHO. 

“We are seeing an acceleration of political interest in this global public health challenge. The increase in cities recording air pollution data reflects a commitment to air quality assessment and monitoring. Most of this increase has occurred in high-income countries, but we hope to see a similar scale-up of monitoring efforts worldwide,” she further added.

Where does India Rank?

The 2018 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) scored 180 countries on 24 performance indicators across 10 issue categories and two policy objectives covering environmental health and ecosystem vitality. India ranked 177th in the 2018 EPI, reflecting the strain rapid economic growth imposes on the environment. With a score of 30.57, India is near the bottom of this ranking. Low scores on the EPI are indicative of the need for national sustainability efforts on a number of fronts, especially cleaning up air quality, protecting biodiversity, and reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions.

Sharat Chandra further added, The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 should be strictly implemented. Government should take stringent action against industries which discharge higher amount of pollutants into the environment than the level prescribed by the Pollution Control Board.”

What Action is being taken?

“A clean India would be the best tribute India could pay to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150 birth anniversary in 2019,” said Shri Narendra Modi as he launched the Swachh Bharat Mission on October 2, 2014.

As per India’s Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana Scheme (PMUY), India is home to more than 24 crore households. Out of these, about 10 crore households are still deprived of LPG as cooking fuel. They rely on firewood, coal, dung cakes, etc. as a primary source for their cooking. The smoke from burning such fuels causes several respiratory diseases/disorders in women and children. As per a WHO report, smoke inhaled by women from unclean fuel is equivalent to burning 400 cigarettes in an hour

Over the years, several laws have been enacted by the Central government to curtail the damage to the environment.

“Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.” ― Jacques-Yves Cousteau

Air Quality Index (AQI) is an initiative by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) intended to enhance public awareness and involvement in efforts to improve air quality. People can take simple measures to maintain vehicles properly (e.g. get PUC checks, replace car air filter, maintain right tyre pressure), follow lane discipline & speed limits, avoiding prolonged idling and turning off engines at red traffic signals. Where AQI is found to be severe, citizens are advised to minimize travel, use public transport, bikes or walk, carpool and use smaller vehicles.

Central Pollution Control Board has also taken up a nation-wide programme of ambient air quality monitoring known as National Air Quality Monitoring Programme (NAMP). This network consists of 731 operating stations covering 312 cities/towns in 29 states and 6 Union Territories of the country. The objectives of the N.A.M.P. are primarily to determine the status, trends and violations of ambient air quality across the identified cities.

Under N.A.M.P., 4 air pollutants viz ., Sulphur Dioxide (SO2), Oxides of Nitrogen as NO2, Respirable Suspended Particulate Matter (RSPM / PM10) and Fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5) are being monitored in addition to meteorological parameters such as wind speed, wind direction, relative humidity (RH) and temperature.

National Air Quality Index by CPCB on Jun 04, 2019 @ 4 PM 
(Average of Past 24 hours)

S. No City Air Quality Index Value Prominent PollutantsBased on Number of Monitoring Stations
1.VaranasiPoor 233PM101
2.Tirupati Satisfactory 64 NO2 1
3. Thiruvananthapuram Good 39 OZONE 1
4. Mumbai Satisfactory 79 CO 1
5.Jaipur Poor 201 PM10 
6.Jalandhar Moderate 160 PM10 1
7.Fatehabad Very Poor 322 PM10 1
8. Kolkata Satisfactory 76 PM10 2
9. Hyderabad Satisfactory 64 OZONE, PM10 5
10.Delhi Moderate 169  PM2.5, PM10, OZONE 33

Possible Health Impacts of the Air Quality

Good Minimal Impact
Satisfactory Minor breathing discomfort to sensitive people
Moderate Breathing discomfort to the people with lungs, asthma and heart diseases
Poor Breathing discomfort to most people on prolonged exposure
Very Poor Respiratory illness on prolonged exposure
Severe Affects healthy people and seriously impacts those with existing diseases

“Pollution makes epigenetic changes which in turn leads to multiple diseases. Avoid pollution, live healthy!” said Prof. M. Krishna Kumari, Obstetrics & Gynaecology, Apollo Medical College.

As per the IQAir AirVisual 2018 World Air Quality Report and interactive World’s Most Polluted Cities ranking, prepared in collaboration with Greenpeace Southeast Asia, 22 of the world’s 30 worst cities for air pollution are in India, with Delhi again ranked the world’s most polluted capital.

The report highlighted that the number of non-attainment cities in India has gone up to a whopping 241 from the initially identified 102 by CPCB and MoEF&CC (Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change) under NCAP (National Clean Air Program) making it about 80% of the locations with PM10 monitoring data.

Pujarini Sen, Greenpeace India said, “IQAir AirVisual 2018 World Air Quality Report is a reminder to us indicating that our efforts and actions to reduce the invisible killer, i.e., air pollution are not enough, and we need to do much more than already planned and done.” 

“If we want India to breathe clean air, it’s high time that our plans such as NCAP, GRAP (Graded Response Action Plan), CAP (Comprehensive Action Plan), etc. becomes much more stringent, aggressive, legally binding and most of all implementable at ground rather than being just used as a political statement without much happening at ground.”Unfortunately, there is little to cheer and so much work to do as India is becoming a global leader in the amount of its carbon footprints. Laws and monitoring bodies are in place, what needs to be done is the implementation of stringent action on the ground.

“A diligent citizen, nature enthusiast, occasional blogger, avid reader, sporadic photographer and social commentator; Kolla Krishna Madhavi likes to express her personal views with a dash of mirchi ka tadka. With 20+ years of corporate WEX, including the more recent stints at IIIT-H and Google, Madhavi has opted to ‘right till-fume’. She can be reached on [email protected] and followed @mirchikatadka.””

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