12 Aug 2016 19:43 IST

Lifting the pall 

With 18,000 people dying every year from air pollution related causes, combating pollution is a crying need

On Friday, December 5, 1952, a blanket of smoke (or smog) fell upon the city so heavily that people couldn’t see beyond a few feet ahead of them. Movement, especially those of vehicles, came to a standstill and people remained indoors. However, the smog penetrated into the buildings. Many concerts and shows had to be stopped midway because the audience couldn’t see what was happening on stage.

The smog didn’t clear till Tuesday. Only then could people take stock of the damage. Some 4,000 people had died, and 25,000 more were affected, the authorities said. Soon, it became clear that the numbers were gross underestimates. Later day estimates put the death toll at 12,000.

Which city was this? New Delhi, which is infamous for its dirty atmosphere? Shanghai, another such city? Jakarta, perhaps, for Indonesia is known for its wild forest fires that spread their haze across the country?

No. We are talking about the Great Smog of London.


The world, apparently, has learnt little from the experience.

Shocking numbers

You’d be shocked when you learn that 18 people die every day in Mumbai by falling off the packed intra-city trains. If you are, then be prepared for something that’s a thousand times worse. Every day 18,000 people die due to causes arising from air pollution all over the world. A good number of them are Indians. Air pollution kills 6.5 million people every year, according to the International Energy Agency, of whom 1.6 million are Indians. Of the 1.6 million, one million are women, who die cooking for their families – the oven smoke affects their health, causing respiratory diseases that are fatal.

But then, those who are on the cusp of making a career for themselves should note that there is a huge industry opening up — that of controlling air pollution. The IEA estimates that, over the next 25 years, India will need to invest $2.3 trillion in advanced pollution control technologies, two-thirds of which will be for vehicles, and another $2.5 trillion to transform the energy sector. Checking pollution from power plants alone calls for $145 billion, the Agency estimates in its recent Special Report on air pollution.

Energy efficiency and pollution control are two sides of a coin. You avoid consuming energy, you reduce pollution. As somebody said, the greenest energy is the one that is not produced. When you combine energy efficiency and fighting air pollution, you see a very large industry opening up.

Opportunity to course-correct

India is a very densely populated country. Some 420 people live in every square km, 12 times as many as in the United States. This density is estimated to go up to 540 per sq km by 2040. Concurrently, 315 million people will migrate into the cities from villages and small towns.

All this means that an enormous amount of development is yet to take place — which is an opportunity. The previous column discussed the making of ‘green houses’, with all appliances working on DC current that can be supplied by an overhead solar plant. Now, there are ample opportunities for energy conservation even in the building of the houses. Some 75 per cent of the houses that will stand in 2040 are yet to be built. This means, they can be built well, imaginatively, with less energy and in such a way that people living in them will consume less energy.

For instance, don’t use conventional bricks. Instead use, hollow bricks made out of fly-ash from the power plants. Why? Because not only are hollow bricks better insulators, conventional bricks guzzle enormous amounts of energy while being made, and the type of kilns we have spew millions of tonnes of air pollutants into the atmosphere. India is the second largest brick producer in the world, after China, and its 140,000 kilns produce 250 billion bricks a year. The kilns provide jobs to 10 million people, but also are highly energy-inefficient. So, they afford an opportunity for pollution control in the housing/building sector down-up.

Automotive, power sectors

Similarly, 20 Indians out of 1,000 have cars; this number will increase to 175 in the next quarter century. Imagine the pollution increase. Oil consumption will increase from 1.5 million barrels a day to 5 million, by 2040. How should we reduce pollution here? But not using the vehicles. The alternative is efficient mass public transportation systems, both rail and road.

Take the power sector. In December 2015, the government came out with new rules to check emissions from thermal power plants, which have to be met by December 2017. This calls for huge investments. Many power plants in India are run by state-government-owned electricity companies, which are broke. As such, it is difficult to imagine the deadline for the anti-emission measures will be met, but still, there will be investments.

In this manner, if you examine every industry from the air pollution point of view, you will see that pollution control alone will be a major economy-driver in the years to come. Any human need spurs economic activity, and pollution fighting is a crying need. If our governments and policy-makers dither, it would help to remind them of the Great Smog of 1952.

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