Clearing the Air in India's Polluted Cities


Guest Blog by Nehmat Kaur, NRDC India Representative

India has taken two big steps toward a cleaner future for its cities. Last week, an inter-ministerial group headed by India's Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, unanimously decided that India's vehicles will transition to cleaner fuels and leapfrog from Bharat Stage IV to Bharat Stage VI emission norms by 2020 - four years sooner than the original timeline of 2024 to shift to more stringent emission norms. The decision aims to support India's efforts to address vehicular air pollution in its fast urbanizing regions that are currently struggling with the air pollution challenge. It further augments the slew of measures being implemented in the capital, New Delhi, currently topping the charts as one the world's most polluted cities.

Delhi's record air pollution levels in 2015 has been attributed to a lack of adequate monsoon rain, agricultural farm fires from neighboring states, fireworks on the Diwali festival and vehicular congestion. In efforts to reduce air pollution from cars, the Delhi government launched the "odd-even" rule earlier this month. The rule limits the use of private cars with odd or even numbered registration (license) plates on corresponding odd and even dates. The experimental rule aims to lower traffic congestion and resulting emissions. The Delhi government has also banned the registration of new diesel and sport utility vehicles with an engine capacity of 2,000 cubic centimeters or more until the end of the year's first quarter.

Other significant sources of pollution in Delhi include waste burning, diesel generator sets, industry, biomass cooking and dust. Late last year, the Delhi government permanently shut down two of the capital's thermal power plants to address industrial pollution. While the focus in Delhi has remained on vehicles, there is a need to increase awareness and regulation around pollution from waste burning, supply regular power so that citizens don't need to rely on diesel generator sets for back-up power during blackouts and provide LPG or electric stoves to enable a shift away from the use of biomass for cooking.

In efforts to increase public awareness, last year the Indian government released an air quality index (AQI) in India. The AQI serves to provide a health advisory corresponding to the air pollution levels recorded and forecasted for the coming days. With suspended particulate matter (SPM) 2.5 levels continuing to remain dangerously high, it is important to understand necessary health precautions to protect vulnerable groups such as young children and the elderly. Fine particulate matter pollution is particularly dangerous to public health because its microscopic size enables particles to enter a person's lungs and bloodstream and can lead to asthma and other respiratory symptoms, heart and lung disease, and even heart attacks.

New Delhi's predicament with pollution has compelled authorities, media, civil society and communities to participate in the debate on clean air and take concrete steps to address it. Policies such as the "odd-even" rule and the expedited move to cleaner fuel are steps in the right direction. Looking ahead, the government's ambitious targets on clean and renewable energy, rapid and smart urbanization, revitalization of existing cities and provision of universal energy access can support the control of air pollution from becoming a challenge across the country. Economic development based on clean energy and energy efficient urbanization are opportunities to mitigate pollution in the future cities of India, while providing a higher and healthier standard of living to millions of Indians.