Though one hears about air pollution in winter, the air quality is bad throughout the year. In fact, a 2016 study by IIT Kanpur found that PM 2.5 and PM 10 levels were 4-7 times the upper limit irrespective of the time of the year.
Economic growth and pollution: The causes of decrease in air quality are many — exponential increase in the number of vehicles in India from approximately 55 million in 1981 to 230 million in 2016. According to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers, ‘The sale of Passenger Vehicles grew by 7.89 per cent in April-March 2018 over the same period last year.’ Tail pipe emissions contribute just 2 per cent of PM 10 emissions at the national scale. A source apportionment study carried out by CPCB found road and construction dust contributed between 6-58 per cent of PM 10 particles. However, when PM 2.5 matter is considered, the contribution of the transport sector rises to 31 per cent.
The dependence on conventional energy sources is another factor. According to the Ministry of Power, ‘The electricity generation target of conventional sources for the year 2018-19 has been fixed as 1265 Billion Unit (BU), ie, growth of around 4.87 per cent over actual conventional generation of 1206.306 BU for the previous year (2017-18)’.
There has also been an increase in stubble burning over the years. Improper waste disposal is another big issue.
The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health in 2017 stated that 2.5 million Indians die prematurely because of air pollution. In 2016, the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation calculated that in 2013 air pollution caused 1,403,136 deaths. The country lost $55.39 billion in labour output.
Budgetary allocation for air pollution control: The magnitude of air pollution problem and its far-reaching consequences calls for a response of mammoth proportions from the Centre and the states. That the National Green Tribunal had to recently ask 23 states to come up with plans to bring air quality within prescribed limits is proof of the importance given to this matter at the state and Central levels.
A review of PRS analysed state budgets for 2018-19 and 2017-18 found that only Delhi government made express provisions to combat air pollution — a subsidy of Rs 30,000 for firms to switch from diesel generators to clean fuel based one and another subsidy of Rs 1 lakh to incentivise piped gas. The government will also purchase 1000 electric buses.
A look at state budgets found that some states like Karnataka and Bihar have budgeted for the installation of air pollution monitoring stations in the current budget. Odisha launched a Star Rating system to encourage transparency in compliance of pollution standards within industries. Other states launched apps to keep citizens informed of air quality.
Interestingly, last year’s Delhi budget made provisions for the installation of 20 more air quality monitoring stations while the government of Punjab made a provision of Rs 20 crores to prevent the burning of paddy straw.
However, there was no other nod to air quality amelioration in these two budgets or in other state budgets.
Unfortunately, the 2018-19 central budget only catered to Delhi’s air. The government forgot that there are 13 other cities spread across India that feature in the world’s top 20 cities with deadly air quality.
However, after a presentation from the Environment Secretary, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment recommended a 50 per cent increase in the ministry’s Rs 2675.42 crore budget. The Secretary stated that Rs 250 crore of this additional money would be spent on air pollution abatement.
This year’s central budget exempts ethanol blended petrol and diesel blended with biodiesel from road and infrastructure cess, to promote their use. But will it help our lungs?
Is it the cart before the horse: Here in lies the problem. Air pollution abatement does not prevent air pollution. No amount of expenditure on abatement will suffice if it cannot at least equal the expenditure and investment in polluting sources. Take the example of the oft-abused remedy for air pollution — electric vehicles for public transport and personal use. The use of such vehicles only changes the point of pollution discharge. Further, as almost 64 per cent of electricity is generated from fossil fuels there is going to be a corresponding increase in pollution from these sources. The promotion of electric vehicles should come with the caveat that they be charged through renewable energy. This will not only decrease pollution in the city where such vehicles run, but will also prevent further decline in air quality around power generating sources.
Further, reducing vehicular traffic through schemes such as odd-even days can limit the number of vehicles on the road for a time. With the increase in purchases the efficacy of the scheme will decrease.
There is a need to take a hard look at the sources of pollution, be they the power industry, the construction industry, stubble burning, vehicles etc. It is important to look beyond abatement.