Regulatory haze worsens pollution in India

By Varenyam Achal Source:Global Times Published: 2017/11/19 19:33:39


Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

India has been experiencing slow but continuous industrialization and urbanization since the beginning of the 21st century. As a result, air pollution is gradually becoming a serious environmental issue, affecting more than 1 billion people. Air pollution in Indian cities surpasses that in many cities of China despite a mere 33 percent urban population compared to China's 56 percent. Recently, the severe smog and haze blanketing several Indian cities has drawn the public's attention to the rising threat.

According to the most recent pollution index 2017 mid-year, 10 Indian cities are among the world's 25 most polluted cities including Delhi, while 21 out of the 50 most polluted cities are in India. These numbers, more or less, keep rising at regular intervals.

The key pollutants in air include CO2, SO2 and NOx among others. India ranks third after China and the US in terms of total greenhouse gases from the consumption of energy, according to CAIT climate data of 2012. In 2010, India became the world's second-largest emitter of SO2 after China and third biggest NO2 producer after China and the US. The health cost of air pollution in India was about $80 billion in 2010.

Air pollution has both acute and chronic effects on human health leading to damage to respiratory system, heart, lungs, immune system, endocrine and reproductive systems. In addition, breathing polluted air puts human beings at a higher risk for asthma and other respiratory diseases. Vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly are more susceptible to air pollution.

Air pollution reduces crop yields, damages biodiversity and contributes to climate change. Air pollution was responsible for more than 1.4 million deaths in India in 2013 and these numbers may rise in the coming years. Thus, it is very important to reduce air pollution in India, lest it should cause serious economic losses, social conflicts and health costs.

Air pollution in the second most populous country in the world is related to faulty legislation, improper planning and lack of implementation of laws by government and policymakers. Moreover, being part of a democratic setup, the Indian government is also afraid of the electoral repercussions of putting in place harsh environmental laws.

The recent odd-even vehicle number plate rule started in early 2016 to combat traffic pollution in Delhi foundered hardly in a month - a glaring example of administrative laxity. The Delhi government's plan to reintroduce the rule this month came to a naught due to loopholes in the system.

There is a possibility that scientists in the developing nation are not getting sufficient funds from the government for research on a large scale to control pollution. Many cities like Ghaziabad, Faridabad and Patna don't have pollution-fighting measures. It is not very hard to reduce the menace in India as the major sources of pollution are burning of biomass, vehicle emissions, fuel adulteration, building materials and dust.

I suggest the Indian government should (1) enforce environmental protection laws that exist largely on paper, (2) control traffic pollution by putting tough rules in place, such as introduction of special vehicle license plates (license plate limitation rule and high price) to be used during rush hours, (3) intensify penalization of violators - individuals or industries, (4) promote green energies and provide subsidy to use alternative energy sources, (5) introduce carbon tax, especially in metropolitan cities, (6) control burning of biomass, specially by farmers, (7) increase research budget related to environment protection, and (8) improve environmental awareness, especially among the illiterate.

These suggestions can help rein in pollution, bringing solace to the government and policymakers. Moreover, it's time for government to take concrete steps and crack down hard on violators rather than mouthing platitudes on environmental safety. If not controlled, India will face bigger environmental challenges and become the most polluted country among growing economies.

The author is professor of environmental engineering at East China Normal University, Shanghai.

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