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17 Oct

Air Pollution

  • The nationwide lockdown, to prevent COVID-19, has led to minimal air pollution in over 90 cities including Delhi.

Key Points:

  • During the lockdown, the government has asked the people to avoid unnecessary travel which has significantly reduced the traffic movement.
  • Other factors which have contributed to the improved air quality are shutting down of industries and construction sites and rains.
  • According to the centre-run System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), the measures against COVID-19 have led to a drop in:
  • 2.5:
    • It is an atmospheric Particulate Matter of diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres, which is around 3% of the diameter of a human hair.
    • It causes respiratory problems and also reduces visibility. It is an endocrine disruptor that can affect insulin secretion and insulin sensitivity thus contributing to diabetes.
  • Nitrogen Oxide (NOx):
    • NOx pollution is mainly caused due to high motor vehicle traffic and can increase the risk of respiratory conditions.
    • Generally in March, pollution is in the moderate category in the Air Quality Index while currently, it is in the satisfactory or good category.
    • Under the good category, pollution is considered to be at the lowest and the air is believed to be the healthiest to breathe.

What does CPCB Says?

  • Air quality in the National Capital Territory of Delhi is presently in the good category.
  • Kanpur, which has high pollution levels normally, is in the satisfactory category.
  • 92 other cities with CPCB monitoring centres have recorded minimal air pollution, with the air quality ranging between good and satisfactory.

About Air Quality Index:

  • The AQI is an index for reporting daily air quality.
  • It focuses on health effects one might experience within a few hours or days after breathing polluted air.
  • AQI is calculated for Eight Major Air Pollutants:
    • Ground-level ozone
    • It is also found in the stratosphere and protects from ultraviolet (UV) rays, while in the troposphere (ground level) it acts as a pollutant.
    • It is not a primary pollutant but a secondary one.
    • Ground-level ozone is not emitted directly into the air but is created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the presence of sunlight.
    • PM10
    • 5
    • Carbon monoxide
    • Sulphur dioxide
    • Nitrogen dioxide
    • Ammonia
    • Lead
  • Ground-level ozone and airborne particles are the two pollutants that pose the greatest threat to human health in India.

What are the Other Observations and Suggestions Made?

  • The low AQI and the blue skies prove that air pollution was mostly anthropomorphic (man-made), which can be reduced by conscious efforts.
  • Reducing air pollution by rapidly slowing down the economy is not an ideal way so mindful use of technologies and low-emission alternatives can be opted to minimise the pollution.
  • It was also emphasised that air pollution weakens the lungs so countries like India with higher pollution and lower nutrition levels will be more affected by COVID-19 leading to higher morbidity and deaths.

The State of Global Air 2020 report was released. The report has highlighted two warnings for India. Firstly, India recorded the highest annual average PM 2.5 concentration exposure in the world in 2019. Secondly, the country has had the worst levels of PM 2.5 levels in the world for the last decade.

Despite many efforts taken by the government to tackle air pollution, the Indo-Gangetic plains pollution load has remained high. Moreover, air pollution has now become the largest risk factor for death among all health risks.

Hence, in order to mitigate the deleterious impact of air pollution on the health of the people, there is a need for urgent concerted effort to tackle this public issue.

Pollutants Causing Effect on Health

  • Pollutants with the strongest evidence for public health concern include particulate matter (PM), Ozone (O3), Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and Sulphur dioxide (SO2).
  • These pollutants are capable of penetrating deep into lung passageways and entering the bloodstream causing cardiovascular, cerebrovascular and respiratory impacts.

Various Reports on Effect of Air Pollution

  • State of Global Air 2020 Report: According to it, India faced the highest per capita pollution exposure (83.2 μg/cubic metre) in the world.
    • In 2019, over 116,000 infants in India died within a month after birth due to exposure to severe air pollution.
    • The report also suggests exposure to polluted air during pregnancy is linked to low weight and premature birth.
    • Further, it noted that long-term exposure to outdoor and household air pollution contributed to over 1.67 million annual deaths from stroke, heart attack, diabetes, lung cancer, chronic lung diseases, and neonatal diseases in India in 2019.
  • WHO: According to WHO, toxic air is now the biggest environmental risk of early death, responsible for one in nine of all fatalities.
    • It kills 7 million people a year, far more than HIV, tuberculosis and malaria combined,
    • An estimated 4.2 million premature deaths globally are linked to ambient air pollution, mainly from heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and acute respiratory infections in children.
  • World Bank: According to a 2016 World Bank report, the lost lives and ill health caused are also a colossal economic burden:
    • $225bn is lost labour income in 2013, or $5.11tn per year (about $1m a minute), if welfare losses are also added.

Source of Air Pollution

  • Burning of Fossil Fuels: Most of the pollutants are produced by burning fossil fuels or wood, for driving, heating, power plants and industry.
    • Several man-made factors, vehicular emissions, construction dust, garbage burning causes severe pollution.
    • The particles can be made of black carbon, nitrates, sulphates, ammonia or mineral dust.
  • Agriculture & Allied Sources: Farming is one such source of pollution, with ammonia from livestock manure and fertilisers blowing into cities and forming particles, particularly in spring time when crops are sown and muck is spread.
    • Further, stubble burning is also one of the major sources of air pollution in northern India, especially in winters.
  • Natural Sources: Apart from it, there are some natural sources of outdoor air pollution such as dust storms.

Way Forward

  • WHO’s 4 Pillar Strategy: WHO adopted a resolution (2015) to address the adverse health effects of air pollution. There is a need to adhere to a roadmap highlighted under this.
    • This 4-pillar strategy calls for an enhanced global response to the adverse health effects of air pollution. Those four pillars are:
      • Expanding the knowledge base
      • Monitoring and reporting
      • Global leadership and coordination
      • Institutional capacity strengthening
  • Proactive Measure: Interventions like pollution-monitoring apps should be promoted, so that people can choose to avoid the travelling worst times, and take alternative city walking routes that keep people away from the most polluted areas.
    • The application of Graded Response Action Plan in the Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR) is a step in the right direction.
  • Innovative Measure: There is a need to adopt innovative solutions for in-situ treatment of pollution. For example, the Delhi government is also experimenting with a new organic way of decomposing stubble with Indian Agriculture Research Institute’s “Pusa decomposer”.
  • Responsibility of Citizens: Despite plenty of ideas and solutions to tackle air pollution, still conditions remain the same. This is due to the lack of serious political will and people’s participation.
    • Therefore, citizens should continue to stand up for their right to healthy and sustainable environments and hold governments accountable.
  • Addressing Injustice: There are huge injustices at the heart of the air pollution problem as the Poorer people are also most exposed to air pollution.
    • Thereby, the need to enforce Polluter Pay principle and an environment tax must be levied from industries of polluting in nature.


Fighting air pollution is a public issue and subsequently an everybody’s responsibility. Therefore, the need is for concerted and coordinated efforts with active involvement of all the stakeholders. This should include the Government (national, state and local governments), cities, community at large and individuals.

Further, there is a need for policy which envisages a healthy energy transition and healthy urban planning transition.

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