Air Pollution: More blue days than blue skies in India’s cities

Why we did not find much to celebrate in our cities on the United Nations' International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies

Days come and days go. And as I write this, we are on the International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies, commemorated by the UN annually on September 7th.

What this observance wants to achieve is of course pretty transparent and specific from the name itself. Sadly though, in our cities in particular, we seem to be quite far from that goal. Clean air is a luxury, blue skies a rare treat.

This year’s observance comes close on the heels of the latest Air Quality Life Index report from the Energy Policy Institute, University of Chicago (EPIC), which says that South Asian residents could lose up to five years from their lives on average if the levels of air pollution as recorded in 2021 continue to prevail. For Indians, the second worst polluted country, the precise deduction from life expectancy has been pegged at 5.3 years. 

Cut the jargon and what it means is you could well live 5 years and 4 months less, unless air quality improves in line with WHO guidelines. Worse, if you happen to live anywhere in the Indo-Gangetic plains, you are on track to lose 8 years of your life on average to poor air.

And brace for this: if you are in the National Capital Territory of Delhi, this figure would be 11.9 years!

[You can download the India Factsheet from the EPIC AQLI report here.]

Viewed in the light of reports such as this one, it is imperative to pay attention to the theme for this year’s observance of the International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies: “Together for Clean Air”. This stresses the need for stronger partnerships, increased investment and shared responsibility to overcome air pollution.

Elaborating on the above, the UN notes: “Given the transboundary nature of air pollution, all stakeholders have a responsibility to protect the earth’s atmosphere and ensure healthy air for everyone. Working together, across borders and boundaries, between sectors and beyond silos, will help reduce air pollution, leverage finance and investments towards air quality measures and solutions, and provide many benefits.”

But when it comes to reducing air pollution, do you really see any synergies playing out around you? 

When we look back at some of the air quality related reporting and conversations we have had in the recent past, there’s not much evidence of togetherness or concerted efforts at all.

The changes we need, but will not push for

Across cities, we find that decision makers have persisted with policy and practices that do little to change the status quo. 

A few examples:

Continuous ambient air quality monitoring remains inadequate to combat the scale of the pollution problem that our cities have. What it means is that there is just not enough timely, reliable and ready-to-use data on air pollution, a fact that even the EPIC report draws attention to.

Consider Bengaluru, for example, where population, vehicular congestion and construction activity have seen explosive growth over the last decade. Bengaluru today has only seven continuous ambient air quality monitoring stations operated by the state pollution control board.

However, as early as in 2017, an analysis conducted as part of the Air Pollution Knowledge Assessment (APnA) for 20 Indian cities estimated that the city’s urban airshed required at least 41 such stations to spatially and temporally represent true pollution levels.

Read more: Air quality plan in Bengaluru needs reliable data

Closely associated with monitoring is the compliance angle. Polluting industries operate with little regard for the impact of their activities. And with little risk of punitive action, as one of our reporters witnessed for herself when she joined a city tour – evocatively titled the Toxic Tour – organised by the Chennai Climate Action Group. The tour led attendees to seven spots in the city where environmental degradation caused by industries, predominantly the thermal power plants, is on open display.

Read more: Industrial pollution in Chennai: Through the lens of the toxic tour

“The half-day trip starts with participants observing the change in the air that we breathe as we enter the North Chennai region. The air carries the smells of fly ash, LPG, fuel and sulphur,” writes our senior reporter, Shobana Radhakrishnan. Meanwhile the regulatory authority, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, remains ineffective at best and apathetic at worst.

If one looks at the emissions data of the eleven public sector Thermal Power Plants in Tamil Nadu in 2021, it is seen that emissions from these plants exceeded the permissible levels on multiple occasions. Yet, when confronted with these points, officials from the Board say that the data obtained (stack emissions data) comes through an alert system that helps in fixing the issue when the notification is received. Therefore, they cannot take action based on these records of momentary violation.

Clearly, procedural fine print takes precedence over the quality of air that citizens are breathing.

Read more: How TNPCB has failed North Chennai

A building under construction in Chennai
Despite rules on paper regarding management of construction waste and control of dust from the same, practices on the ground remain highly polluting. Representational image. Pic: Avinash D (for Citizen Matters Chennai)

In many cities, road dust and construction dust are among the highest contributors to particulate matter in the air, but we continue to persist with sub-optimal practices in the domain.

As Mumbai-based air quality expert Ronak Sutaria told us, “You don’t need to cut and mix things at site. Blame squarely remains with the construction practices we employ. You don’t see that happening in other countries. It’s poor planning and poor technology.”

Surely, in a country that has mastered rocket science reasonably well, figuring out the right technology and process to minimise construction dust should not be such a huge deal if all stakeholders come together.

Read more: Mumbai’s pollution: A huge health epidemic (Interview with Ronak Sutaria)

Rules and norms that exist to manage construction waste that releases large amounts of particulate matter into the air are rarely implemented. In Chennai, for example, the Greater Chennai Corporation has bye laws clearly mandating regular inspections, surprise checks, enforcements squads etc., but a construction site engineer tells us he has never come across any authorities conducting such inspections.

Coming together as citizens: The only hope

In such a situation, the only hope for the country perhaps lies in its people. As noted by various studies such as this, citizen-led monitoring, knowledge sharing, collaborations have significantly reshaped research and awareness on air pollution, and democratised the science of it. Research groups and not-for-profit entities have also contributed to the discourse substantially.

For example, in 2020, in Bengaluru we saw the release of a report titled ‘Choking in the Garden City by Sensing Local and Healthy Energy Initiative India. This brought together various stakeholders – the impacted communities, health experts, environmental experts and urban planners. They worked collaboratively towards identifying the problems of air pollution at a hyperlocal level and finding solutions to it.

In Delhi, a group of women have banded together to form Warrior Moms, a collective that is vociferously pushing for our children’s right to breathe clean air. Through conversations, dialogues and advocacy, they have been trying to amplify voices against air pollution and climate change, and bring about change in policy, action and mindsets.

This is what we need to scale up. The next step then would be for citizens to organise themselves and use such civic and non-profit initiatives as the basis for a more sustained and vocal push for policy and administrative action. Because, in the end, whether it is India or Bharat, clean air and blue skies are what will determine its survival in the long term.

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