Much to the embarrassment of the Indian government, the latest edition of urban air quality database for over 4,300 cities from 108 counties released by the World Health Organization (WHO) showed that people living in urban India, particularly in cities and towns along the Indo-Gangetic plains, breathe the foulest possible air in the world.

While the industrial city of Kanpur topped the list, the third and sixth positions were held by Varanasi, the city that Prime Minister Narendra Modi represents in Parliament, and the capital city of New Delhi. On the whole, 14 Indian cities have the dubious distinction of occupying the top slots among the world’s 20 most polluted cities, followed by those from Mongolia and China.

Other Indian cities that figured in the top 20 list are Faridabad, Gaya, Patna, Lucknow, Agra, Muzaffarpur, Srinagar, Gurgaon, Jaipur, Patiala and Jodhpur.

The study was based on the level of suspended particulate matter having a size of 10 micron and 2.5 micron (one micron is one-millionth of a metre) found in the city’s air. Even more deadly are PM2.5 as they can increase the likelihood of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

Statistics that speak

According to the WHO, around 7 million people die every year from exposure to fine particles in the polluted air that penetrate the lungs and cardiovascular system, causing diseases including stroke, heart diseases, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and respiratory infections, particularly pneumonia. As per the WHO statistics, air pollution is a critical risk factor that accounts for 24 per cent all adult deaths from heart disease, 25 per cent from stroke, 43 per cent from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and 29 per cent from lung cancer.

As WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus aptly put it, while air pollution threatens all those who live in a polluted city, the brunt of the burden is mostly borne by those who are the poorest and most marginalised.

The WHO has been maintaining the urban air quality database since 1990. Till very recently, Chinese cities like Beijing used to top the list of cities with toxic air. But concerted government-level action over the last few years played a key role in improving air quality in many Chinese cities. Last year, for instance, the Chinese environment ministry implemented stringent anti-pollution measures in Beijing and 27 other cities, forcing heavy industry plants such as those making cement and steel to shut down, suspend or curtail production.

As per the WHO air quality recommendations, the annual mean concentrations of PM2.5, which constitute sulphate, nitrates and black carbon, should be less than 10 parts per billion (ppb) in the ambient air. However, the values of PM2.5 for Indian cities in the list ranged from 173 ppb for Kanpur to 98 ppb for Jodhpur. The PM2.5 level in Delhi air, on the other hand, in 2016, was 143 ppb, which was 14 times over the safe limit.

On the mend?

The Indian government did not contest the WHO rankings, but said the PM2.5 values for Delhi in 2016 as per the Central Pollution Control Board’s Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations (CAAQMS) was 134 ppb, not 143 ppb as the WHO listed. It also pointed out that there has been an improvement in Delhi air quality since then. “Data for the year 2017 for PM 2.5 shows an improvement over 2016 and so far in 2018, it shows a further improvement, as compared to 2017,” an official release from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) said on May 2, a day after the WHO put out the data. According to the MoEFCC, the PM2.5 average mean concentration for 2017 was 125 ppm.

Anumita Roychowdhury, Executive Director — Research and Advocacy, of the New Delhi-based voluntary organisation, Centre for Science and Environment, agrees that there has been some kind of stabilisation in the air pollution levels post-2016 and the number of days in which air pollution was perilously high has come down in the Capital.

“Nothing surprising to find these new Indian cities in the list as these are the cities where air quality monitoring was introduced in recent years,” she says, adding that the situation is grim. She also points out that these cities are the new growth centres for India and this is an indication that there is need for more stringent monitoring and regulation when developmental projects are undertaken. She is quick to add that the WHO list is not a ranking system but a database of air pollution levels in different cities, and those on the top will change as more cities from other developing parts of the world are added to the database.

It is a fact that the government, much after the prod and rebuke from the Supreme Court, came out with a Clean Air Programme for Delhi in February. Extending this further to other parts of the country, the Government last month unveiled a National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), with the aim of reducing air pollution in 100 cities. However, one grouse expressed by environmental activists is that while, earlier, there was talk of quantifying the emission cuts — that is reducing the pollution by 35 per cent in the next three years and 50 per cent in five years — such time lines are missing from the draft made public by the government last month.

The overall objective of the ₹637-crore NCAP is preparing a comprehensive management plan for prevention, control and abatement of air pollution, besides augmenting the air quality monitoring network across the country. The NCAP, which will be finalised after incorporating suggestions and comments from the public and experts till the 17th of this month, aims to cover all sources of pollution specific to each city and to have coordination between relevant Central ministries, State governments, local bodies and other stakeholders.

Manual monitoring

Under the NCAP, the government plans to increase manual monitoring stations from the existing 684 to 1,000 across the country and a three-fold increase in CAAQMS, whose number currently is 84.

The government has also said that replacing BS-IV fuels with BS-VI fuels in cities like Delhi and schemes like Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala scheme in which rural women living below poverty line are given free LPG connections to make them shift to cleaner household energy use are some of the measures initiated by it to improve quality of air in the country.

An earlier report by Greenpeace India said more than 80 per cent of cities where air quality is monitored are severely polluted and it impacts 47 million children across the country. Also, 580 million number of people in India don’t even have a single air quality monitoring station in the districts they live in. As regards the WHO database, Greenpeace India expressed surprise as to why only 32 Indian cities were covered when CPCB and State pollution control boards monitor air quality for 300 cities in the country. The fact that 14 Indian cities rank the most polluted in the world clearly shows that India needs to do more towards solving the air pollution crisis, it said.

“The WHO report clearly underplays the situation by mixing up data from many years. In reality, the situation in India is much worse. It’s imperative that the NCAP has clear targets for pollution reduction and interim milestones,” says Sunil Dahiya, a senior campaigner with Greenpeace India.