Air pollution is a worldwide phenomena and India is not an exception to it. With every winter comes the news of increasing air pollution in the Delhi-NCR region. This is attributed to various causes such as burning of rice stubble by farmers in North-West India, construction activities, vehicle exhausts etc as well as the prevailing atmospheric conditions. To understand why this severe air pollution occurs, let us first understand what air pollution is and how it harms our health.
Air pollution occurs when harmful or excessive quantities of substances including gases, liquids and solid particles as well as biological molecules are introduced into the Earth’s atmosphere, which tends to interfere with human comfort, health or welfare and also causes environmental damage. Both human activity and natural processes can generate air pollution.
Air pollution can occur both in the open air, called outdoor pollution, as well as inside the house, called indoor pollution. Outdoor air pollution is a growing problem worldwide. Smog is a form of large-scale outdoor pollution. It is caused by chemical reactions between pollutants derived from different sources, primarily automobile exhausts and industrial emissions. In contrast, indoor air pollution is mostly caused by burning of solid fuels for household cooking, heating and lighting. Indoor pollutants include solid particulate matter, mould, dust particles and bacteria, as well as chemicals and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) released from paints, personal care products and building materials. Not only does air pollution affect the health of people, but also affects their longevity. WHO has ranked outdoor air pollution among top killers in India.
Air pollutants can be in the form of particulate matter which can be very harmful to our health. PM 10 are pollution particles having diameter equal to 10 micrometers or less (a human hair is about 100 micrometers). These are not trapped in the nose or throat but are drawn deep into the lungs. PM 2.5 are smaller pollution particles having diameter equal to or less than 2.5 micrometers in size. These are more harmful than PM 10 and penetrate deep into the respiratory system. These cause the most damage to the body.
Short term effects of air pollution include irritation to the eye, nose and throat and upper respiratory infections such as bronchitis, pneumonia, headaches, nausea and allergic reactions. Long term effects can include chronic respiratory disease, lung cancer, heart disease and even damage to the brain, nerves, liver and kidneys. Continual exposure to air pollution can affect the lungs of growing children.
Besides human health, there are other adverse effects of air pollution. Chemical reactions involving air pollutants can create acidic compounds which fall down as acid rain, which cause harm to vegetation and buildings. When acid rain falls over an area, it can kill trees by damaging their leaves, as well as harming animals, fish and other wildlife.
The dimensions of air pollution in NCR include automobile exhausts, stubble burning by farmers in North India, which is seasonal, construction activity, uncontrolled emission of pollutants from manufacturing activities and other sources. In the case of particulate matter, stubble burning is significant for causing it. Every year during October and November, after the harvesting of the Kharif crop (usually rice), farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh burn the remaining stubble. This is done because they only have a window of about a month between harvesting the rice and planting wheat as the winter crop.
Earlier, farmers used to manually cut the rice. With this method, the rice stalk would be cut very close to the ground. But now they use a combined harvester machine to save labour costs and time. This method leaves 50 cm long paddy stalks in the field, which the farmers burn to make the field ready for the rabi crop. The prevailing winds carry the polluted air, which has a lot of particulate matter, to Delhi-NCR and nearby areas. The respective state governments have imposed a penalty of Rs 2500 per acre to dissuade farmers from burning stubble. But this has not deterred them because managing the stubble scientifically is more costly for them.
Besides stubble burning, a number of other causes create pollution in the NCR region. These include pollutants caused by combustion of low quality coal, industrial manufacturing, open burning of waste, dust from traffic, smoke and exhaust from vehicles and aeroplanes. Open burning of waste is a large source of toxic air pollutants such as particulates, carbon monoxide, black carbon, dioxins and mercury. These are highly toxic and carcinogenic pollutants. Air pollution in the National Capital Region (NCR) in 2016 reduced life expectancy of people living in the region by over six years, according to a report by the Energy Policy Institute at University of Chicago (EPIC).
TO control pollution, a number of independent agencies have been formed by the government. The presence of pollution beyond certain limits due to various pollutants is monitored by the Pollution Control Boards in every state. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) implements legislation created to improve the quality of air and to prevent and control air pollution in the country The CPCB advises the Central Government on matters concerning the improvement of air quality and also coordinates activities, provides technical assistance and guidance to the state boards.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has direct implementation of a Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) to combat different levels of air pollution. The NGT is authorized to fine the state governments and other agencies for not controlling pollution as per its directions. The Environment pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) is permitted to take preemptive steps under the GRAP without strict adherence to pollution stages delineated in the plan. When the pollution in the NCR region suddenly increased last October, the EPCA asked the Delhi and NCR governments to start preparing for steps such as a complete ban on construction activities if pollution aggravates. Other emergency measures such as odd-even formula for vehicles plying in NCR and total ban on construction activity are also taken by the government when required.
Similar other initiatives are needed to prevent a pollution related disaster which may occur anytime in the NCR region. First, the government must eliminate stubble burning through providing incentives to farmers for managing the stubble scientifically, instead of nominally fining them. Next, the monitoring agencies must remain more alert to people or agencies causing air pollution. They should take strong penal action against offenders without exception. Other short term and long term measures to be taken to reduce pollution may include limiting registration of new vehicles in NCR region, stricter monitoring of polluting activities etc.
For a healthier future of people living in the NCR region, all the concerned authorities must coordinate their actions. All citizens and relevant agencies must cooperate to find solutions to air pollution in NCR, otherwise a pollution disaster may strike anytime. Air pollution needs to be brought under control with urgent and effective action. Thus, a pragmatic approach is required for reducing the pollution by a considerable level for the better future of the generations to come.