The Big Picture – Have Indian cities become unliveable?
Pushing to bring down pollution level, the new government recently launched India’s first national air
quality index. The air quality index is the crucial step that will inform the public about the level of
pollution in the air on a daily basis in real time. It has been launched in 10 cities across the country
including the national capital. The air quality index from the Central Pollution Control Board is the first
national index to explain in layman’s terms the effect that breathing the air in 10 cities could have on a
In 2014, the World Health Organization compiled average annual PM 2.5 numbers for over 1600 cities
across the world, including 124 from India. Delhi had the worst air quality in the world by that estimate,
but 12 other Indian cities were among the world’s worst 20 – Patna, Gwalior, Raipur, Ahmedabad,
Lucknow, Firozabad, Kanpur, Amritsar, Ludhiana, Allahabad, Agra and Khanna.
A recent study conducted by economists at the universities of Chicago, Harvard and Yale, found that
over half of India’s population – around 660 million people – live in areas where fine particulate matter
pollution is above the country’s standards for what is considered safe. Some activists have warned that
the campaign to attract foreign companies to manufacture in India, known as “Make in India,” could
make things even worse. There was a rising trend from 1989 to 1997 as monitored by the Central
Pollution Control Board (CPCB). The concentrations of carbon monoxide from vehicular emissions in
1996 showed an increase of 92% over the values observed in 1989, consequent upon the increase in
It is also equally true that public transport has come down, with bus riders dropping from 60% to 40%.
While walking and cycling still account for nearly 40% of all trips, there is no safe place for pedestrians
and cyclists in a city obsessed with cars, flyovers and highways. About a third of Delhi residents have one
or more symptoms of respiratory diseases. Children and the elderly are the most vulnerable.
While the government has announced the air quality monitoring index, it has not announced any policy
to control pollution. In fact, policies such as self-regulation by polluters, the land acquisition policy, and
more market and business-friendly policies all have the potential of increasing pollution risks. Transport
is an important aspect. But no public transport policy announcement has been made since the WHO
released its data on Delhi being the world capital of pollution. There is also no policy for regulating the
number of automobiles that are daily introduced. A small commitment has been made on solar energy,
but much is needed to shift from fossil fuels to renewables and from individual cars to shared mobility.
Without environmental safeguards, this policy will destroy the soil, uproot farmers, contribute to
deforestation, and increased pollution. The existence of a National Urban Transport Policy has not made
a difference either. Coal burning for power generation can be reduced if rooftop solar power is
promoted through a national scheme.
Often, environment and industry are seen as antipathy to each other. The Government should ensure
good-quality monitoring while undertaking dissemination of daily air quality index and health advisories
widely through print and the electronic media as well as other communication channels. The
government should implement pollution contingency measures to bring down peak pollution levels
during severely polluted days. Both government and citizens have equal responsibility in maintaining the
quality of air.