Every year, a vast blanket of smog covers the National Capital Region and a major part of North India. Every year, stopgap measures are taken too late, and millions of people suffer major health setbacks.
The harm is immense: In India, air pollution harms both urban and rural populations immeasurably. Over a million Indians lose their lives every year, making it the greatest environmental crisis of our times. Air pollution causes lung cancer, asthma, cardiovascular ailments, maternal and child mortality, cognitive ailments, and various other health issues to millions of Indians. It is estimated that residents of the NCR lose out on almost 6 years of their life on average, and children raised in the NCR have been showing decreased lung capacity and increased respiratory ailments. There are also grave economic costs associated with this crisis, impacting India’s development and poverty reduction agenda.
We therefore demand the following:
1. The Government of India must recognise this as a public health emergency. An empowered commission consisting of the Prime Minister, chief ministers of afflicted states, key cabinet ministers and municipal bodies must therefore be constituted to ensure inter-ministerial and inter-state coordination without which efforts to combat air pollution will fail. The following measures must be considered and implemented across state lines.
2. Those most suffering from the consequences of air pollution must be protected first and foremost. This involves the provision of masks and air purifiers in public schools, better envelope design in public buildings, protection of labour that works outdoors, and paid public holidays on days when air pollution breaches critical limits.
3. The creation of a dust management plan. As dust is a major contributor to air pollution, a comprehensive plan must include dust management at construction sites, manufacturing units, roads, parking lots, fallow fields, and public parks.
4. Urban transport plans that prioritise pedestrians, cyclists, rail and road public transport, and private electric mobility in that order. Municipal infrastructure funds must be awarded according to this priority list. Additionally, busy market and residential areas should be identified and converted to car-free zones with the provision of electric alternatives for those who cannot walk. Infrastructure for electric vehicles must be put in place.
5. There should be no more new coal-fired power plants. We recognise that coal is a mainstay in India’s electricity grid and cannot be removed painlessly. However, no new coal power plants should be built. All additional power demand should be met by cleaner technologies. Existing plants should be required to meet air pollution standards without further delay. A roadmap to wean the power grid off its dependence on coal-fired power plants to cleaner sources must be put in place with milestones every 3 years to review progress and assess strategy.
6. A manufacturing policy overhaul that includes phasing out the most polluting technologies. A national brick plan should be created and enforced, leading to steep reductions in pollution from brick kilns. Similarly incentives should be given for those industries that transition away from coal fired processes to cleaner alternatives, including natural gas and renewable electricity.
7. An evergreen revolution that will put an end to crop burning. The current system of fines for farmers who burn their stubble is not working. Instead, we need to ensure a sustainable and diversified agricultural system less focused on the ‘rice wheat cropping cycle'. Agricultural policies should also focus on elongating the time between the two crops, providing better machinery, and creating a viable market for agricultural stubble.
8. A national mission to end biomass for cooking and heating by 2022. Indoor air pollution is a major killer and disproportionately impacts women and children. In the next two years, all households should be incentivised to move towards LPG and electricity for cooking. Similarly, people who use biomass for heating in winter should be provided with cleaner alternatives.
9. A waste management mission that is at the heart of air pollution control measures. Municipal waste that is not properly segregated, collected and disposed of often ends up in landfills that catch fire or in localised bonfires. Waste management must be a core pillar of air pollution action.
10. Pollution control boards should be given teeth, including more power, training and personnel. Owing to inadequate capacity, skill, and sheer strength of workforce, pollution control boards have proven to be ineffective. Capacity building, hiring of trained personnel, and empowered leadership can lead to the effective enforcement of existing laws.
All public investments must be futureproof: the low cost housing or factories we build today will be locked in for the next 50 years. We must ensure the most efficient materials and designs are used.
These recommendations have come to us from experts working in the field of clean air and energy. We welcome your comments – help strengthen our demands by writing to email@example.com.
These are the demands we should be making of our leaders and of our Government. Clean air is a human right, and when lives are being lost every day, this transition must happen and happen fast.