It is unimaginable. Air quality in most Indian cities is at critical levels. And the culprit - respirable particulates - are way above danger mark in most cities monitored. Yet government and industry are only too happy to join hands to script mass obituaries
A study shows that 7.5-10 per cent of males in Delhi suffer from various respiratory diseases. Another says that 10 per cent suffer from breathlessness and their lung function is way below the expected levels. One study from Bangalore records the shooting up of asthma in tune with vehicular population and industrial growth. Researchers in Kolkata narrate how the lungs of growing children are showing grave signs of degeneration. In one small municipality in Chennai, the health costs for minor sickness and hospitalisation increased by over
6-7 times in just about seven years.
Do these studies ring a bell in the government's ears? One way is to observe how the the Union government reacts to these emerging evidences. Before that it would be useful to find out how governments in other countries react in similar situations. The results of the Harvard Six Cities study was published in 1993. The first set of results of the American Cancer Society (ACS) study came out in 1995. In 1997, the US Environment Protection Agency (USEPA) rushed in to set limits at 15 g/cum.
More ominous are the implications of these studies for India. The ACS study found high rates of lung cancer and cardiovascular deaths even when the annual average levels of PM2.5 were below 34 g/cum across the US.
PM2.5 is not even monitored in India.
The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) started publishing PM10 data only from 1999 for the whole country for the first time. Data is, however, available only for 14 of the 36 cities monitored. Out of these, PM10 has recorded critical levels in 13 cities (see map: Mapping the hot spots). In other words, the PM10 levels in these cities not only exceed 90 g/cum every year, but can reach as high as four times the national annual standard of 60 g/cum. The latest report from the USEPA shows that PM10 levels are below 40 g/cum in almost 90 per cent of the cities in the US. A pertinent pointer even in the absence of PM2.5 data. The magnitude of the consequent health impacts can be horrifying.
Even common sense would be good a guide to the possible status of fine particulate pollution in India. Innumerable studies point towards diesel being the major source of fine particles in the US. Yet, diesel consumption in the US is just about one-fourth of petrol. In India, diesel consumption is ahead of petrol by about six times. The effect is showing up.
Though very few studies are available which document the health effects in India's cities and small towns, the little that is available points towards a malady of gigantic proportions (see: Down To Earth, Vol 10, No 8).
Clearly these figures demand control of particulate emissions on a war footing. Yet the government has made its mark in dilly-dallying. It is yet to develop a proper emission source inventory. But international studies have proved beyond doubt that fine particles - the most lethal ones - come mainly from vehicles. The growing automobile fleet, particularly diesel vehicles, even in the smaller towns are becoming the biggest threats to public health.
This makes a national policy on controlling vehicular pollution imperative. Though the Union government constituted a national committee for recommending national auto fuel policy, its recommendations reflected an urgency to protect the market for dirty diesel and inferior petrol rather than to expedite introduction of cleaner fuels and technologies and clean up the air of the dying cities.
The committee showed its mettle in quibbling over whether to introduce Euro II or Euro III by 2005 in cities, which are not even the most critically polluted. The only city among the top ten polluted that is on the privileged list prescribed by the committee is Delhi.
Despite massive exercises in emission control in western countries adverse health impacts are showing up even at very low levels of pollution. This put a question mark on the conventional incremental approach of reducing emissions and led to a paradigm shift. The focus has shifted to alternative fuels and technologies and gradually to zero emission vehicles. While California moves from low emission vehicles to ultra to super ultra low emission vehicles, the European Union recently announced that even Euro V is certainly not the end of the road. It is even contemplating controlling the number of particles emitted from vehicles. Caught in the quagmire of international progress and national lack of vision, the polluted lungs of the silent majority in India gasp for fresh air.
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