Air pollution in India is often seen as a challenge confined to the Indo-Gangetic Plain (IGP) airshed, the seven states beginning with Punjab in the northwest to West Bengal. A report in TOI showed that it’s not always the case. Coastal metros, Mumbai and Chennai, recently recorded air quality index readings worse than Delhi. In general, the situation is worrisome. The World Air Quality Report this year showed that of 50 global cities with toxic air, 35 are located in India.
Poor air quality is a public health problem, whose effects spill over to other areas. The Global Burden of Disease Study in 2019 estimated that 18% of deaths that year in India were attributable to air pollution. The economic cost came to 1.36% of GDP. Within India, it’s the poorer states across IGP which experienced the largest increase in pollution. In other words, a disproportionate burden of India’s abysmal air quality is borne by the more vulnerable sections of the population. It’s certainly not a price that needs to be paid for economic progress. World Bank’s cross-country data for 25 years (1990-2015) shows that China and Vietnam recorded a higher average GDP per capita growth with a smaller change in mean annual PM 2.5.
Among air pollutants, it’s the growing incidence of PM 2.5 that is the most damaging. With a diameter of about one-thirtieth the width of human hair, it arises from many sources, including dust. Therefore, tackling air pollution in India can no longer be about localised solutions. So far, India’s policy approach to improving air quality has tended to be city-centric. It won’t work because the source of the problem is an airshed, which represents a common geographic area of pollutants. Consequently, Delhi despite a huge vehicle density sometimes has better air quality than surrounding areas.
The common thread running through urban areas such as Mexico City that have managed to improve air quality is approaching the challenge as one that spills across political boundaries. Once a geographical airshed is the focus, the nature of incentives offered by public policy will change. In India, it means that GoI has to play a more proactive role of coordination as airsheds span clusters of states. Given the health and attendant economic costs of toxic air, a solution is in the common interest of GoI and all affected states.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.
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