Gardening for clean air

By Ankita Jyoti and Dimpy Suneja

Jacques Cousteau, French Explorer, once said “Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.” These words are so appropriate, the rapid urbanisation in our country jeopardize nature to that extent where it is worsening and yielding poor living conditions for us. According to the World Health Organisation, 25-30 cities in the top 100 most polluted cities in the world are from India and the majority of them belong to Northern part of country. The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) report published in 2015 highlighted that almost 1.1 million people died due to ambient air pollution. These estimates do not include acute impacts such as asthma attacks, eye irritations and other respiratory ailments.

The two capitals, the National Capital (Delhi) and the State Capital of Bihar (Patna), are among the worst polluted in the world with high PM 2.5 levels or the fine particulate matter. The two are among top five most polluted cities of India both in WHO 2014 and 2015 rankings. The ambient air quality usually deteriorates during the winter and hits dangerous levels, exceeding the safety limits.

Our recent study for the cities of Patna and Delhi found that air pollutant concentration for the 2 cities not only exceeds the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) but in fact are 10-15 times higher than the prescribed limits during winter months. The highest particulate matter (PM 2.5) concentration recorded for Delhi and Patna were 981 μg/m3  and 542 μg/m3 which is 16 times and 9 times the national standards respectively. The study also highlights that both the cities haven’t witnessed clean and healthy air between November to February even on a single day. This underlines the concerns of respiratory risks and other health hazards.

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The main question that follows this long discussion is what can we do to protect ourselves? By now it is clear that air pollution is not a stand alone problem but a result of rapid and unplanned development of cities. The usual suggestion is to stay indoors, installed air purifiers and wear masks. But, quite literally there’s nothing one can do when the situation outdoors call for an emergency action which can’t always be tackled by shifting the onus of responsibility on the commercial sources like industries, power plants and construction sites.

Clean and healthy air is everyone’s right and it is important to find real solutions which are not just criticising the government authorities for their incompetency to improve the air quality of the cities in Indo-Gangetic region. Here is a list of measures that must be taken up urgently:

  1. Public Health Advisory: The most important and the foremost step should be issuing regular public health advisory. A health advisory is a form of public information on how clean or polluted the air is, what associated health effects might be of concern along with the measures that can be taken at individual level. A number of countries around the world have an already established practice to disseminate information of the next day’s air quality which not only helps the residents to plan their day accordingly but also minimise the exposure.
  2. Improve public transportation in quality and quantity: If the plan is to make the car- owners abandon their vehicles, then the city need to provide that opportunity. The long term planning should be targeted towards Integrated Public Transport System (IPTS) that provides citizens smooth and comfortable travel to the last mile through various modes of transport. The IPTS would ensure connectivity among various modes by curbing passenger-travel demand and de-motorising the streets.
  3. Support cycling: In order to debunk the myth of mode of transport defining the income group of an individual, cycling should be encouraged. Accordingly, steps should be taken to construct and maintain good quality pavements.
  4. Link parking fees with the air quality index: Indian cities have one of the lowest parking fees in the world. Instead of the existing structure, a differential parking fee system can be adopted on the basis of the air quality of that day.
  5. Proper waste collection systems: Several cities around the world have overcome the challenge of waste collection and management. Currently, the methods applied to collect and process waste are very primitive and it is high time we switched to something more sustainable; which will not only lead to aesthetic improvements of the city but decrease the contribution of waste burning in deteriorating air quality.
  6. Find a solution for stubble burning: During the winter period, stubble burning creates a serious problem in the entire Indo-Gangetic states, spewing a mix of aerosols and gases tilting the average AQI from the typical unhealthy to hazardous. There is an urgent need to begin an incentive program for farmers to addresses their concerns and reasons for stubble burning.

Overall, there is an urgent need to formulate a detailed Clean Air Action Plan (CAAP) for cities with well-defined targets, timelines and adequate steps  to reduce the air pollution. A CAAP will not only focus on developing regional scale plans to improve air quality with yearly targets but also integrate efforts across different departments.

Ankita and Dimpy are Clean Air campaigners with CEED in Patna and Delhi respectively.