Explained: What new WHO pollution norms mean for India

Considering the current situation, even the older WHO norms were beyond India’s reach in the foreseeable future. The new standards are unlikely to be achieved for several years.

New air quality norms released by the World Health Organization on Wednesday are likely to ignite a fresh round of discussion on air pollution in India. These norms would make India appear worse than it already looked under the existing norms. Considering the current situation, even the older WHO norms were beyond India’s reach in the foreseeable future. The new standards are unlikely to be achieved for several years.

Beyond that, the revised standards are an acknowledgment of the mounting scientific evidence that points to a much higher risk to human health from air pollution than was earlier known. The appropriate response, therefore, would be a more focused effort to mitigate these risks and prevent the loss of lives.

No quick fixes

There is unlikely to be any dramatic improvement in India’s air quality, even if a concerted effort was initiated immediately. The quality of air is dependent on a variety of activities and needs to be tackled at source. For example, one cannot expect clean air, when the surroundings are filthy, or the quality of roads are not good.

Also, the effort to improve air quality comes in direct conflict with some other objectives, such as the need to ensure that our industry remains competitive in the short term. That is the reason why we have seen repeated relaxations, or extensions of deadlines, in implementing more stringent emission norms for certain industries.

But there are also several areas where clean air comes out as collateral benefit. Several flagship government programmes – Swachch Bharat, Namami Gange and other river and lake cleaning projects, Smart City Mission, building of highways and expressways, the push for electric vehicles – would all lead to a significant improvement in air quality, not just in big metros which remain the focus of all debates on air pollution, but across the country.

The Ujjwala scheme would probably have already started making a difference in the households where traditional cooking fuel has been permanently replaced by LPG in the last few years. The health impacts of indoor air pollution are not very well appreciated even now, but study after study has shown that it is as big a killer as outdoor air pollution.

The faster India moves ahead on these projects, the quicker it is likely to see improvements in air quality. The fallout of these projects on air quality is expected to be far greater than any fancy ideas like artificial rain or an odd-even scheme for private transport.

Low hanging fruit

The improvement is likely to be slow even if sustained push is maintained on all these projects. This realisation is reflected in India’s National Clean Air Programme as well. The targets set for the selected cities are quite modest and would take several years to be achieved.

But there are a number of rather low-hanging fruits that can deliver appreciable benefits within a short span of time. Unfortunately, not enough attention is paid to these, even though these are easy and cost-effective to implement. Plenty of construction is happening all across the country — houses, roads, commercial centres, airports — and this is likely to continue for a couple of decades.

India still does this construction in a very unclean manner. The construction site is not covered or segregated, construction material or debris are kept in the open, and transported in open trucks. Almost all construction sites are dust bowls.

India’s roads don’t conform to basic construction sites. The corners of the roads are not properly paved, leading to the release of lots of very harmful particles. The sidewalks and road dividers are major sources of dust.

It is easy to fix these if the local municipal bodies want to. And there are significant gains to be achieved in terms of air quality.

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