Choking on growth, prosperity

When this writer woke up in the morning one of these days, he thought that visibility would be as high as it was a day before - it happened due to the rain-wash effect. But soon he realised that pollution sources in the city were actually above its self-cleansing capacity. This had resulted in visibility being considerably deteriorated.

It is not just about visibility that has been bothersome; it is also about the toxicity of the particles - their ability to affect our lungs and cardiovascular system, too has been troubling us more.

It's not that the levels of pollution are high And it’s not just the case in Delhi. About 80 per cent of the cities in India are polluted. Gwalior, Allahabad, Raipur and Ghaziabad are recording higher levels of pollution than Delhi. Other than particulates in the air, there are gaseous pollutants which have the potential to affect human health, agriculture and buildings. In all, about six lakh people die annually in India just on account of particulate matter pollution. Upto 36 per cent of wheat is lost due to ozone pollution in India.

New research tells us that some of these particles also contribute to global warming. These harmful particles and gases are emitted from the combustion of fuels in different sectors such as transport, industries, power generation, diesel generator sets, residential combustion etc. While some of these sources, like residential biomass burning for cooking, have linkages with lower access to cleaner fuels and poverty, others like transport, industries and power are strongly linked to economic growth.

The question to be asked is: Is the rate at which we are growing, sustainable?

Sustainability calls for a balance between the three factors of social, economic and environment. In this case, environment has faced the brunt of rapid growth in economic sectors, and soon the socio-economic aspects will also get affected with severe health impacts and their associated costs. So, should we slow down our growth? Absolutely not. Instead, we should grow in a sustainable manner by preserving the environmental quality and reducing as much as possible our damaging footprints.

For instance, in the transport sector, which is one of the important contributor to emissions at the urban scale, a number of steps are required to make transportation more sustainable without compromising on mobility demands. This has been done in other parts of the world. In the 1960s, California had the worst air pollution in the world. Between 1968 and 2008, California reduced pollutant emissions by 75 per cent to 90 per cent, while its population increased by 100 per cent; the number of vehicles by 175 per cent and diesel consumption as well as miles travelled increased by 225 per cent. The cost of control was just about 0.5 per cent of the GDP and brought 10 to 30 times more health benefits in comparison to the costs of control.

We are presently adding more than 30,000 vehicles daily on the roads of India. With growing mobility demands and income levels, this is expected to grow further. If we don’t do anything about it, vehicular emissions could be two to three times higher in the next 20 years. This is the time we must start thinking about the avoid-shift-improve approach. The three questions to be asked here are:

First, can there be technologies or management options which can enable the residents of a city to avoid a trip ? The use of e-commerce options, e-governance systems and improved land-use planning are certainly some of the ways to do this.

Second, for the trips cannot be avoided, can there be transport systems which are more efficient and environmental friendly? The enhancement of public transport systems based on cleaner energy options is the key.

Third, for the trips which cannot be avoided or shifted to public transport, can there be options of cleaner forms of private vehicles? This calls for investments in the refineries and the automobile sector for improvement in quality of fuel and vehicular technologies.

For all these, examples are there in the world and technologies available. What we need is the will to implement strategies in a planned manner. The costs involved may not be small but they are far less than the negative impact on sustainability and human well-being. Public awareness is another thing which needs to be improved on aspects related to air pollution.

While public awareness is found to be bit more on visible degradation of water bodies and waste mismanagement, air which is invisible is generally neglected. Enhanced awareness levels could put the required pressure on the Government, industries and ourselves to control air pollution and improve the quality of air which is inhaled by us in thousands of litres per day.