Air pollution impacts villages and cities almost equally but pollution control funds only for urban India, shows analysis

Villagers lose 7 months more of their lifespan than city dwellers due to air pollution exposure, but still without any air pollution monitoring network

By Jayanta Basu
Published: Thursday 13 July 2023
Photo: iStock

In 2022, the annual average of the most toxic air pollutant, ultrafine particulate matter (PM) 2.5, was as poor in rural India as urban India; putting under scanner the Union government’s policy of only investing in selected urban areas of the country for controlling toxic air pollution.

The analysis was carried out by nonprofit Climate Trends based on satellite-based data generated by IIT Delhi scientists.

Incidentally, according to another analysis carried out by Delhi-based think tank Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the rural population suffers more than its urban counterpart when it comes to the length of losing life span due to exposure to the toxic pollutant.

According to the Climate Trends analysis, in 2022, the average annual PM 2.5 level was 46.4 microgrammes in rural India,barely below the urban level of 46.8 microgrammes. The national limit is 40 microgrammes.    

PM 2.5  is an extremely potent air pollutant that can penetrate deep into the lungs and trigger a range of diseases including the fatal ones.

The urban and rural levels of PM 2.5 in India since 2017 shows almost similar pollution concentration; with hardly any differences within the two sets of figures, showed the Climate Trends  report.  The National Clean Air Plan (NCAP) was declared in 2019 — two years later. 

NCAP was launched with a tentative national level target of 20-30 per cent reduction of PM 2.5 and PM 10 concentration by 2024. 

So far it has released around Rs 9,000 crores mainly for 131 cities — called non-attainment ones — consistently going above the national air pollution limits, according to sources. However, most rural areas do not have even any on-ground pollution measuring mechanism; forget about combating it.

The finding puts into question the Union government’s massive investment to combat urban air pollution while doing virtually nothing to tackle the country’s rural pollution.

“The NCAP was designed as a programme to address the high levels of air pollution across India’s urban centres… Air pollution is a transboundary problem that knows no borders. There is an urgent need to track pollution levels and develop policies for rural regions, as there is little difference in concentration levels between urban and rural areas,” read the report. 

There is little difference between urban and rural concentration for all regions, the report added.

Incidentally the rural PM 2.5 pollution was found to be significantly high in Delhi (87.7 microgrammes) and states like Bihar (74,5 microgrammes), Haryana (67.8 microgrammes), Uttar Pradesh (62.3 microgrammes), Rajasthan (60.4 microgrammes) and West Bengal (58.3 microgrammes).

Experts demand action

The need for a much larger network of high-spatial-resolution systematic, robust and continuous air pollutants monitoring over the rural and non-urban regions too, that could meet the scientific demands was pointed out by professor Abhijit Chatterjee of Bose Institute in one of his recent papers titled A deep insight into state-level aerosol pollution in India: Long-term (2005-2019) characteristics, source apportionment, and future projection (2023).

“… the air pollution issue in the country in the recent decade would not be resolved unless we take the rural parts into account,” Chatterjee wrote.

“Under NCAP, so far around Rs 9,000 crore has been allotted to minimise particulate pollution in 131 cities, but virtually no funds for rural areas. The report raises fundamental questions about this policy,” added another researcher.

Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of research and advocacy, CSE and one of the foremost climate experts in the country, agreed that the rural areas are still out of bounds when it comes to air pollution control.

“I have been telling it for quite some time that instead of selected cities, the airshade arrangement model needs to be pursued. While it is understandable that air pollution control has been prioritised in cities considering higher exposure in those areas due to higher density, the time is ripe for formulating policy and action in rural India as well,” said the expert.

Roychowdhury referred to a recent study of CSE where it was found that  “yet 47 per cent of the population lives outside the air quality monitoring network …  62 per cent do not have access to daily alerts on the local air quality index” and pointed out that almost the entire rural India stands outside the purview of the air pollution network.   

A CSE analysis earlier showed that villagers, on average, lose over five years and two months of lifespan due to air pollution exposure, while city dwellers lose about four years and five months.

While a loss of over eight years of lifespan was recorded for rural residents in Uttar Pradesh; Bihar, Haryana villagers were found to lose over seven years on average.   

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