Policy Police: Is air pollution a problem any more?

Way back in 2007 we had said Delhi would wake up that winter to more smog and pollution; more wheeze and asthma. Air pollution was on its way back up. Every winter would turn back the pollution clock. At stake was our health. Newly released official air quality data now reconfirms our worst fears. It is not only Delhi, but other cities as well – Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Kanpur, are climbing the smoggy spikes after a little respite.

This annual elegy on gloom and doom of our air quality and health does not stir up emotions any more. So what if the national averages for tiny particles and nitrogen dioxides are rising; more locations have exceeded the air quality standards; more residential areas have violated standards than industrial areas; more small cities are highly polluted; the numbers of days crossing the permissible limits have increased and so has our daily dose of pollution. The temporary relief enjoyed by some big cities has lulled all into believing that air pollution is not a concern any more. As the visible black smoke recedes with basic technology fix, health threat of air pollution is not obvious to people. The danger of invisible pollution is unclear and leave people confused. Governments find it easy to go slow.

If the health implications of the new pollution data were taken seriously, the ministry of environment and forests would have rushed to dust the rusting notification on the proposed national ambient air quality standards and set new nation-wide air quality targets. After all, the eleventh five year plan, already underway, mandates the central government to set monitorable target of air quality -- achieve the standards of air quality in all major cities by 2011–12. But somehow this has spirited away the will to tighten the targets.

Why are the regulators so uneasy about the proposed air quality standards? The proposal after all upholds protection of peoples’ health over protecting economic interests of the industry. It asks to stop the current practice of keeping standards lenient for the industrial areas. The threshold limits of key pollutants are up for tightening. More pollutants are on the list for monitoring and regulation -- PM2.5, ozone and a range of air toxics and heavy metals. But this has not got the official stamp of approval even after three years.

Is it politically embarrassing for the government to have more cities showing up on the highly polluted list as science tightens the safe threshold of pollution? The revised nitrogen dioxides standards will certainly bring more cities into the bracket of critically polluted as opposed to none now; increase the number of highly polluted cities from 2 to 14 and moderately polluted cities from 32 to 53. Similarly, the number of critically polluted cities for particulate pollution increases to 52 to 63. Tightening of sulphur dioxide standards will hurtle four more cities into moderately polluted class taking the total to 9 cities. Finding money to monitor more pollutants further hassles our regulators.

The environment ministry could downplay this issue so easily because our air quality policies are cut off from the reported reality in the Indian health sector today. The health ministry has already warned in its eleventh five year plan that India is experiencing a rapid epidemiological transition, with a large and rising burden of chronic diseases, estimated to be more than half of all deaths and 44% of disability adjusted life Years lost. Non-communicable diseases especially cancer, stroke, and chronic lung diseases are now major public health problems. “Environmentally-driven changes” are amongst the key reasons.

Indian Council of Medical Research has just let out the shocking fact after tracking the deadly cancer trend over 24 years. India will see a 20% overall increase in additional cases of cancer every year by 2020. In absolute numbers, lung cancer will top the list with new cases annually by 2020.

This has not impelled any thorough official review to weigh up the association between these dreadful diseases and toxic air. There is barely any regular central funding of any reasonable scale for health risk assessment of air pollution. State level studies and research are even more sporadic. Yet Indian Council on Medical Research and similar research bodies are officially expected to include in their research agenda that future improvements in health and well-being will depend on research that “increases understanding of environmental determinants of health”.

We only rely on the voluntary efforts of enterprising researchers and doctors for local evidences, and human stories of illness to charge up action. Though health effects of pollution have been thoroughly looked into in the West, showing significant harmful effects at levels substantially lower than those found in our cities, our policies are insular to such data. These are not used by our regulators to warn people about severe risks of pollution episodes, or speed up pollution emergency action. Our air pollution policies do not even pretend to protect all people from continuous exposure to pollutants. The official action on some of the fastest growing pollution sources like vehicles even limits the scope of protection -- the tighter Euro IV standards for vehicles will benefit only a quarter of the urban population in 2010. Imagine the state of our urban poor, nearly a quarter to half of the population in cities breathing smoke from their stoves as well as toxic fumes from rich people’s vehicles. Poor are too poor to buy cleaner fuels and too poor to treat their diseases. But their daily dose of toxins is increasing. The proposed ambient air quality standards if enforced with enforceable targets would at least raise the bar of public health protection for large majority of city dwellers.

It is clear India will not speed up air pollution action if public health loses priority. Change was possible in some cities because health worries moved action. But our government and the scientific community fail to fulfill their obligation and responsibility to speak out on public health and mandate enforcement of stringent air quality targets in cities.

Our polluted cities need the central and the state governments to give them enforceable regulatory and fiscal framework to assess risks and to act. They cannot cope with toxic air on their own let alone assess the health risks. They also do not have powers to set emissions standards, nor the resources to transform transport infrastructure or phase in clean vehicles and fuels to protect public health. They will have to be enabled.

Our losing pollution battle challenges our elementary lessons about economic growth and affluence putting cities on continuous path of air quality improvement, cutting local environmental risks. Our risk curve certainly looks odd as our gains are so easily reversible. The government's inability to prioritize air pollution hazards and the incapacity to act on the health information has slowed down clean technology and sustainable mobility pathways in India.

Who will invest in our health?

-- Anumita Roychowdhury
Right To Clean Air Campaign