Breathing new life into our lungs
At last, India seems to have woken up to the pain polluted air inflicts on the un-suspecting public in the country. The problems get more and more acute as urbanization proceeds apace and more and more people move from the countryside to urban centres. Many of these people move up the income scale through their skill, and inevitably buy motor cycles and cars to commute to their places of work. This apart, factories seem to be sprouting up everywhere adding to water and air pollution.
Dust-laden air laced with obnoxious gases imperils health. People suffer from respiratory problems some of which impair work place efficiency in the short run, and cause debilitating illness as dotage draws nearer. The loss to the nation, when computed scientifically, can work out to staggering figures.
Monitoring the air quality in metropolitan centers as has been decided upon by the central government is a first step towards cleaning up the air over dense population clusters in the not too distant a future. Therefore, the National Air Quality Index launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi deserves to be lauded as a right step in the right direction.
Presently, the quality of data from some cities is, regrettably, hazy and unreliable. Monitoring infrastructure is also inadequate. The monitoring stations are ill-equipped and ill-staffed. This sad state of affairs is due to the inadequate attention of the law makers and the general public towards the incipient danger of inhaling poisonous air.
India is way behind in compliance with the standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO). For micro-fine dust particles with diameter less than 2.5 micrometers, known as Particulate Matter, the WHO has set a recommended average level of 10 micrograms per cubic metre. Some relaxation has been given for meeting interim target. It is 40mcg/m. These miniscule particles are the most damaging for human health.
Sadly, India accepts air quality as ‘good’ if the density of these hazardous pollutants is 50 micrograms per cubic meter. The air in cities like Bangalore is so conspicuously unhealthy, but people are so busy in their mundane problems that they rarely worry about this monstrous menace.
As the experience of China shows, spike in air pollution is inevitable in a fast-industrializing economy. India can not be an exception, but the problem can be minimized by proactive government response. It is heartening to find that Modi’s government has woken up to this creeping danger. The burden of fighting pollution must be shifted to the polluters. This is the universal principle. The financial cost of limiting pollution must be borne by the sections of the society who pollute more and who have the capacity to pay. This must be the bedrock of the government’s pollution-busting policy. A stick and carrot policy can be a good component of any green initiative of the government.
Eliminating diesel-driven buses by introducing large-scale metro rail system can be very expensive to begin with, but in restricting poisonous fumes in the air over cities, they bring long term benefits. A policy shift to garner resources for such expensive projects is the call of the times. Use of SUVs, coming to city centers in personal cars, levying pollution tax on diesel sale can wean the users away from large scale use of personal transport.
The National Urban Transport Policy has not made a dent on the problem of keeping the urban atmosphere clean. The National Green Tribunal has ordered diesel vehicles over 10 years old off Delhi’s roads. This is a small but good step. What should follow is to provide affordable and easily accessible method of mass transport. This is as much true for Delhi as it is for other metros.
The traditional method of short distance travelling in India and elsewhere has been the humble bicycle. Apart from zero emission, it does a lot of good to the user’s body and mind. Sadly, cycles have been relegated to the status of the ‘poor man’s transport’. The government must take steps to adopt measures to make riding a cycle fashionable and desirable for the younger folks who have the highest propensity to use motorcycles and cars. Like it has been done in many advanced cities in Europe, urban road systems must have dedicated cycling lanes and parking places.
Coal burning for power generation is another area that cries for attention. Switching to stand-alone solar plants atop roofs can ease the pressure on coal-generated thermal power grids. A big push to such smart ways of reducing dependence on diesel and coal is urgently needed.
Air pollution causes a whopping number of nearly 6.5 lakh premature deaths in the country. Countless more are affected through minor, nagging ailments. Such a mammoth health issue must be addressed urgently.