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Air pollution has to be tackled at the city governance level in India

Prosenjit Datta     May 3, 2018

The first 14 of the 15 worst cities in terms of air pollution are in India, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), which monitors 4,300 world cities for air pollution in terms of PM 2.5 levels. The worst is Kanpur, and Delhi and Gurgaon are both in the list. (Though it would have perhaps made sense to have Delhi-NCR as a combined entity, and not Delhi and Gurgaon separately.) Most of the cities are in north India.

It should not have come as a surprise to the Indian government. Delhi-NCR air pollution levels make headlines each winter. Every year, it has been getting worse. And the other cities like Varanasi, Jodhpur, Agra, Lucknow, Patna, etc. perhaps do not make too much news for their air quality, but all inhabitants know just how bad the pollution is and how much it affects their quality of life.

I would not be surprised if there are not more Indian cities which have high air pollution levels but don't make the list simply because they are not monitored by the WHO. As India's GDP growth has accelerated over the past three decades, so has its carbon emissions and the air pollution of its cities.

Air pollution, as developed countries and fast growing ones (like China and India) have found out, is something that accompanies faster GDP growth and rising prosperity of its citizens. Petroleum consumption and electricity consumption shoots up, and that in turn increases air pollution.

Is there a solution to it? Over a period of time, developed countries have found a solution, and even China seems to have figured out a way to reduce its air pollution. Note that there is no Chinese city in the top 15, and just a couple in the top 20. Beijing is not in the top 20 worst in terms of air pollution.

It is not that the union government is not conscious of India's worsening air quality. India has voluntarily set ambitious targets for reducing energy intensity and greenhouse gas emissions. The plan includes ramping up clean energy production rapidly - with ambitious targets for solar and wind. There are also plans to reduce or at least reduce the increase in consumption of petrol and diesel, and boost the use of natural gas, which is a far cleaner fuel.

However, if Indian cities are to cut their own air pollution levels, the change and planning has to happen at the city level and state level, instead of depending on the overall climate control goals and programmes set at the union level.

The common factors in all the most polluted cities in terms of air quality are traffic emissions, unbridled construction, highly polluting industries and commercial traffic logjams. That, along with progressive reduction in green areas in the cities account for the bulk of the problems. The solutions are not particularly complicated - but it depends on political will and the ability to reduce corruption at the planning in monitoring level. Finally, there are also outdated thermal power plants that need to be closed down and replaced by cleaner sources of energy quickly.

Delhi and Gurgaon, for example, suffer from all those problems. The rapid growth and resultant construction activity in these cities have wrecked havoc. Most of the construction taking place do not follow norms to reduce the amount of pollutants released in the air. The fact that most industries running in the cities also do not follow pollution norms and generally manage to go unchecked by authorities with the help of some bribes also adds to the problem. Green areas are also decimated because of construction interests and the pressure to build more houses and office buildings. Choked roads are a result of increasing vehicles. And that can be linked directly to increasing population, badly planned roads which lead to logjams, and lack of adequate public transport.

Again, these are not insolvable problems. But fixing them requires dedicated work, and enforcing pollution norms strictly. The problem with the air pollution control of Indian cities has to be tackled at the city governance level - not at the central level.

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