India’s air pollution worsened in 2021, according to the World Air Quality Report released by IQAir, a Swiss firm. This ends a three-year trend of improving air quality. The average air pollution, measured in the lethal and microscopic PM2.5 pollutant, is 58.1 micrograms per cubic meter, which is more than 10 times the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) air quality guidelines. No city in India met the WHO standard.
North India is worse. Delhi is the world’s most polluted capital for the second consecutive year, with pollution rising almost 15 per cent over the previous year. Air pollution levels here were almost 20 times above the WHO’s safety limits, with PM2.5 clocking in at 96.4 micrograms per cubic meter for the annual average. The safe limit is 5.
While Delhi’s air pollution ranks at No. 4 globally, the world’s most polluted place is Rajasthan’s Bhiwadi, followed by Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad on Delhi’s eastern border. Ten of the top 15 most polluted cities are in India and mostly around the national capital.
With 63, Indian cities dominate the list of 100 most polluted places. More than half are in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. An air quality ‘life index’ developed by the University of Chicago shows that residents in Delhi and Lucknow, for instance, could add about a decade to their life expectancy if air quality levels met the WHO’s standards.
The major sources of air pollution include vehicular emissions, coal-fired power plants, industrial waste, biomass combustion for cooking and the construction sector. In fact, in November last year, several large power plants around Delhi as well as many industries were shut down for the first time because of severe levels of air pollution. The economic cost of the crisis to India is estimated at over $150 billion annually. The health impact is far worse with an estimated three deaths every minute linked to air pollution in addition to heart and lung diseases and many other severe health effects.
All six metro cities except Chennai saw a rise in air pollution levels last year.
Interestingly, government data for 2021 also shows that air quality in Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai worsened. A recent note in parliament showed that ‘poor’ to ‘severe’ air quality days numbered 168 in Delhi last year, up from 139 or a steep 21 per cent jump in one year; Kolkata had 83 such days vs 74 and Mumbai 39 vs 20 in the previous year.
However, when asked about India’s poor showing in an earlier edition of the World Air Quality Report in 2020, the centre had dismissed such ranking, saying it was mainly based on satellite and other secondary data not validated by “proper ground truthing.”
IQAir says its data is based “exclusively” on ground sensors and almost half globally were operated by governmental agencies.
The report makes a special mention about smoke from crop-burning after the rice harvest, a politically sensitive issue with parties usually reticent about taking action against farmers. This smoke is responsible for up to 45 per cent of pollution in Delhi, especially in the rice farms near Delhi in winter months, according to the report. Farmers do this because of a short window between the harvest and sowing of the next crop to get rid of the stubble.
What has changed, however, is that for the first time since 2014-15, when WHO reported Delhi was the most polluted city in the world, both Punjab and Delhi are governed by the same political party, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Punjab is where most of the crop-burning happens and now the focus will be what the AAP does to reduce air pollution this year onwards.
After the AAP’s recent win in Punjab, party leader and Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia told NDTV that farmers should be treated as asset and not liability.
The IQAir report notes that air quality in China continued to improve in 2021. In fact, its capital Beijing continued a five-year trend of improved air quality, which the report says is driven by emission control and reduction of coal power plant activity and other high-emission industries.
Incidentally, the cleanest air measured in India is in Ariyalur, Tamil Nadu. But even that is three times WHO’s safe levels.