Two puzzling news hit the headlines in the past few days. One, Delhi's air turned most polluted in October 2023 after 2020, despite the fact that (i) this October has been unusually warmer and hence no "winter inversion" (cold and heavy winter air sinking and trapping pollutants close to earth's surface) and (ii) stubble burning in Punjab fell to 45% in the month. Second, Mumbai overtook Delhi to top the list of most polluted cities in India in October 2023 on a few occasions.

Both are unusual events and the answer is in rising global temperature and climate change not just in India but worldwide. The fifth World Air Quality Report for 2022, released in March 2023, ranks Delhi (NCT) 4th and Mumbai 138th in the list of most polluted cities in the world on annual average. This report also shows that India was home to 39 of the 50 most polluted cities in the world in 2022 (also home to 65 of the 100 and 74 of the 150 most polluted cities in the world).

For Mumbai, two proximate factors have been identified – garbage burning and construction dust – leading to Mumbai municipality's ban on open garbage burning and notices to 6,000 construction sites. No such proximate factors have been identified for Delhi; the suspects in this case are the usual year-round polluters like vehicles, industries, garbage burning and dust from construction and vehicular traffic etc.

Humongous cost of air pollution

Air pollution matters – not just for human health but also for the economy.

The IQAir – a global air pollution tracker which prepares the World Air Quality Report mentioned earlier (along with UN bodies) – says, in Mumbai air pollution killed 30,000 and cost about $3 billion in productivity in 2023 alone. It doesn't give such estimates for Delhi or other cities in India but the magnitude of the cost can be humongous.

A study published in medical journal Lancet says 1.67 million Indians died due to air pollution in 2019, accounting for 17·8% of the country's total deaths. Another study published in Lancet said 93% of India has air pollution levels higher than the WHO norm for safe air, causing a loss of 2% of the GDP in 2019 – 1% of the GDP each due to "traditional pollution" ("household air pollution from solid fuels and unsafe water, sanitation, and hand washing") and "modern pollution" ("ambient ozone pollution, ambient particulate matter pollution, lead exposure, occupational carcinogens, occupational particulate matter, gases and fumes").

The 2023 annual report of the University of Chicago says that India faces the greatest health burden from air pollution – "from 2013 to 2021, 59.1% of the world's increase in pollution has come from India". Due to this, average Indian is likely to lose 5.3 years in life expectancy, north Indian 8 years and Delhiite 11.9 years. North India, including Delhi, has the most polluted (air) in India.

Approach to climate mitigation

But if you think India is very worried, banish it. Here are five big pointers to the lackadaisical approach.

One, as air quality worsened in October 2023, three key agencies stopped sharing critical information about it: (a) IIT-Kanpur stopped giving source apportionment for Delhi since October 18 due to fight between the GNCTD (Delhi government) and its centrally-controlled bureaucracy (b) Central's government's SAFAR-India stopped data on shares of crop fires since October 12 and (c) Central government's Decision Support System (DSS) stopped information on local pollution sources since October 24. Of the three, SAFAR-India said it would restore the system after resolving "multiplicity" of existing forecasting systems soon. All the official air quality index (AQI) data are merely daily numbers – without monthly or yearly trends, analysis or insights.

Two, the daily air pollution data provided by the nodal government agency, SAFAR-India, or any other pollution control agency for that matter, classify cities into five categories: Good (AQI of 0-50), satisfactory (50-100), moderate (100-200), poor (200-300), very poor (300-400), and severe (400-500). These categories are linked to the level of air quality index (AQI) components – PM2.5, PM10, NO2, Ozone (O3) and carbon monoxide (CO) – but not to human health and hence, don't resonate with ordinary people.

In contrast, the US AQI data, for example, come with specific "health implications" and "cautionary statement" for each category to put people and public care systems on alert. These classifications are far more stringent too: Good (AQI of 0-50), moderate (AQI of 51-100), unhealthy for sensitive groups (101-150), very unhealthy (151-200) and hazardous (300+). When the AQI level reaches 'unhealthy for sensitive groups', it means: "Active children and adults and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should limit prolonged outdoor exertion." When it worsens to 'very unhealthy', it means it is time for "health warnings for emergency conditions" for general public and when it is 'hazardous', it is time for "Health alert: Everyone may experience more serious health effects. Everyone should avoid all outdoor exertion."

Three, the Centre makes lofty policy statements like, ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future'; living in harmony with nature', 'lifestyle for environment (LiFE)' and 'Net Zero Emission by 2070', but does the exact opposite in practice. Two latest examples: (i) The Jan Vishwas (Amendment) Act of 2023 decriminalises pollution-related violations and provides for Central government babus as adjudicate officers to award penalty for violating laws of Environment Protection Act of 1986, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1986 and Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1974 and (ii) The Forest Conservation (Amendment) Act of 2023 not only redefines forest in a very narrow sense (overturning the Supreme Court's dictionary meaning of the word in the 1996 Godavarman judgement) but also gives wholesale exemptions for diversion of forest land. Both the laws were enacted last August to ensure ease of doing business.

Four, there is no coherent and holistic policy on pollution control and climate change mitigation. Instead, the Centre has set piecemeal targets for reducing emissions, creating carbon sinks, producing renewable energy etc. The MoEFCC's "India's Long-Term Low-Carbon Development Strategy" submitted to the UNFCC in November 2022 embodies this approach.

That this Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) commitment of India to the UNCC is superficial is also evident from the fact that the NITI Aayog's index for mapping progress of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It doesn’t include the climate mitigation specific goal, "Goal Number 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts." The Aayog's baseline SDG index report of 2018 clearly said: "Progress on SDG 12, 13 and 14 could not be measured because relevant state level data could not be consolidated or found." The implication of this would be clear soon.

Five, India has no assessment of the cost of rising air pollution, water pollution or more extreme weather events (cyclones, abnormal rainfall and above normal temperature) on the economy (production loss). The RBI's "Report on currency and finance: Towards a greener cleaner India" of May 2023 lists the cost of extreme weather events in 2022: "...the country experienced extreme weather events on 314 of 365 days of 2022, which claimed 3,026 lives, affected 1.96 million hectares of crop area and 4,23,249 houses, and killed over 69,899 animals." About early months of 2023, it says: "India has faced its hottest February in 2023 since record-keeping began in 1901 (IMD, 2023). In March, large parts of the country experienced hailstorms and torrents of unseasonal rain, leading to apprehensions of extensive damage to standing crops."

Instead, the RBI, the MoEFCC's report to the UNFCC mentioned earlier and the Finance Ministry’s 2020 report on India’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) talk of "cumulative" investment needed "for adapting to climate change" – pegged at ₹85.6 lakh crore (at 2011-12 prices) by the year 2030. This is completely delinked from the actual cost of pollution and extreme weather events here and now – in 2022 and in 2023.

Besides, how will the impact of this investment (₹85.6 lakh crore) be measured– assuming that it materialises? Remember, the NITI Aayog didn’t map the SDG Goal 13, which is about climate mitigation measures, because of lack of actual data.

Decadal rise in air pollution in Delhi-NCR

Here is evidence that piecemeal pollution control (or climate mitigation) is not working.

In July 2023, a study helmed by Gulfan Beig, the SAFAR-India's founding director and current chair professor in Bangalore's National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), and funded by the Ministry of Earth Sciences, "Decadal growth in emission load of major air pollutants in Delhi" was published.

This study traced the decadal changes (2010–2020) in emission patterns in Delhi-NCR and found high growth in all categories of air pollutants. This was despite the study pointing out a series of new initiatives like higher standards for vehicular emissions (Bharat VI), automatic deregistration of old vehicles (10 years for diesel and 15 years for petrol run), free/subsidised LPG cylinders to cut down the use of firewood and cow dung etc.

The study found:

  • Growth in particulate matter PM2.5 (the one that kills) was 31% and that of PM10 was 3%. Delhi’s PM2.5 level is 10 times the WHO's permissible limits.

  • Growth in carbon monoxide (CO), which poses immediate and direct threat to human life, grew by 13.6%.

  • Growth in black carbon (BC), organic carbon (OC) and nitrogen oxides (NO and NO2) ranged from 34% to 91%.

  • As for source of pollution, the maximum growth was found in the transport sector, followed by the industrial and other sectors.

Here is another evidence that decades of cleaning of the river Yamuna (since 1993) and Ganga (since 1986) have also not yielded the desired result. A few weeks of the pandemic lockdown in 2020 turned the waters of both rivers sparkling blue. What did the trick?

It was the complete shutdown of all industries polluting these rivers. But such polluting industries can't be checked. The decadal study of pollution in Delhi-NCR mentioned above made a damning comment: "There is no comprehensive database for all industries with their technological details."

If such data isn't available for Delhi-NCR, what are the chances of such data for the entire country? And if such data is not available, how will the air and water pollution caused by industry be checked?

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