16 December 2016 11:15:48 IST

Hold your breath!

Traffic policemen take protection against dense smog and air pollution in Lucknow | PTI (Click on the gallery icon on the top right corner to view more pictures)

Here are some disturbing facts about air pollution and government’s preparedness to tackle the issue

Early next year, there will be assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. There will be many issues that need to be addressed — demonetisation, development, in-fight in the Samajwadi Party’s ruling Yadav family, electricity. The list can go on and on. But one issue that ought to be on the top, roiling the minds of the people so much so as to render them sleepless, is unlikely to even earn a casual mention.

The grave issue

Enlightened voters must set out to assess what each political party has done or will do about that issue and only then cast their votes. Because the problem in question is a killer issue — literally. Unfortunately, in the mucked-up political scenarios of India, it is naïve to expect such discernment.

So, what is that issue? Air pollution.

Last month, newspapers carried reports, calling Delhi the most polluted city in India. But those reports were true for only that point of time. In a broader timeframe, the region that is alarmingly polluted, and not showing any signs of abatement, is the great Indo-Gangetic plain, the wheat bowl of India.

A veritable cloud hangs over this region and is extending its reach to other places as well.

Within the Indo-Gangetic plain, the more affected state is Uttar Pradesh, and within the state, the most polluted is the holy town of Varanasi — also the constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The cloud of gloom

Recently, the Central Pollution Control Board put out data of air quality measurements in six cities of Uttar Pradesh, taken in 2015. Each city was measured for a certain number of days, and they divided the data into ‘good air quality’ and ‘bad air quality’ days.

Two cities — Varanasi and (the nearby) Allahabad — had zero good air quality days. Over the six cities, good air quality days amounted to a paltry 6 per cent of the total number of monitoring days.

We intuitively blame air pollution on industries (smoke spewing plants) and automobiles. But Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have far fewer of these than the more industrialised states of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. Yet, it is over the Indo-Gangetic plain that the problem of pollution is higher. Why is this so?

We know that industries and vehicles pollute, so we take steps to check it. But there are other causes we don’t know much about. Over the Indo-Gangetic plain, these ‘unknowns’ are at work. And only now are we beginning to get acquainted with them.

The unlikely culprit

Turns out, biomass burning, including incineration of city wastes, is the main cause of this pollution that hangs over Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, though the direction of wind-flows also contribute by bringing to this region pollutants from other states, such as Haryana and Punjab.

We have been talking about the discolouration of Taj Mahal for over two decades now, and yet haven’t been able to do much about it. The reason is ignorance. When it comes to air pollution, we are merely groping in the dark. That is because we have far fewer monitoring stations than the situation demands.

Need > Supply

The problem of air pollution is neither new in the world, nor is it peculiar to India. Cities like London, Beijing and Mexico City too have faced this problem but they pulled themselves out of it.

We, India, should have learnt from their experience, but we clearly haven’t. I say this because we are yet to take the first major step towards the solution — which is to set up more monitoring units.

India has merely 342 monitoring stations in 127 cities/towns. China has 945 in 190. If somebody is saying “this isn’t too bad”, please wait.

Kinds of monitoring

Air quality monitoring stations are of two types: the offline, where ‘collectors’ pick up samples from the air, and take them to labs at certain intervals of time for analysis. And the online, which give real time data.

Offline stations have very limited use. Even the Central Pollution Control Board admits as much. “Large number of personnel and equipment are involved in the sampling, chemical analyses, and data reporting. It increases the probability of variation and personnel biases reflecting in the data, hence it is pertinent to mention that these data be treated as indicative rather than absolute,” it says.

Only online stations can measure very fine particles — PM 2.5 and PM 1. PM stands for ‘particulate matter’ and the number denotes the size in microns (one micron is one-thousandth of a millimetre). These fine particles are particularly dangerous as they escape all the filters (including nose hairs), get into the blood stream and then into our cells. Guess what happens when the cells keep accumulating particles? Cancer.

So, it is absolutely necessary to measure fine particles, for which we need online stations. After all, our breathing is continuous, not once in a few hours. Now look at some more data. The whole of India has 30 online monitoring stations. Beijing alone has 35, and plans to add another 30. Experts, such as Prof Sachchida N Tripathi of IIT-Kharaghpur, have been crying themselves hoarse over the need to have more online monitoring stations in India.

But the problem does not end with setting up monitoring stations. Particles, after all, are just that. It is important to know what they are made of. A particle could contain many — even thousands of — chemicals. It is important to analyse them and determine the source of the pollution. Or else, you might just end up with situations like shutting down a power plant while the bigger contributor, biomass, continues to burn in the neighbouring state.

In 2010, the latest over 6.27 million deaths in India and 18 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYS) were directly attributed to atmospheric air pollution (AAP). (Indoor air pollution or Household Air Pollution (HAP) caused mainly by smoky ovens, is another story: 1 million deaths, 31 million DALYS.)

Uttar Pradesh is an AAP hotspot. People are dying in tens of thousands and the leaders should do something about it. Early next year, all political parties will be out in the streets, campaigning. This will be an excellent opportunity for people to hold them by the scruff of their neck and ask them what they are going to do about pollution. But do you think people will? Well, let’s hope for the best.