Expert Speak Terra Nova
Published on May 09, 2020
Locked under blue skies: Air quality and the pandemic Amid the gloom of the daily assault on our society by the coronavirus and the lockdown against it, one silver lining along our collective clouds has been impossible to miss -- the bright blue skies and cleaner air we have all been allowed to enjoy. The national capital region, the posterchild of India’s chronic, yearlong and nationwide air pollution problem -- which on average sees most of the days in a year in the poor to severe category on the national Air Quality Index—has witnessed little short of an unimaginable miracle. With the lockdown in effect, and construction, industrial and vehicular activity (which cumulatively contribute 75% of Delhi’s PM 2.5 levels<1>) down to a crawl, the capital has been experiencing record levels of clean air. Barring a single day on the fifth of April when a few overzealous supporters of the Prime Minister chose to take the latter’s call to light lamps in support for our critical service providers to the next level by bursting firecrackers (and the lingering effects of their effusions the next morning), AQI levels in the city have dropped to scarcely believable levels. It has been truly refreshing to see AQI below 30 most days, on one occasion dropping into single digits after an unexpected summer shower. Even prior to the lockdown, during the single day ‘Janata Curfew’ that was observed on March 21, 2020, the gains Delhiites received were immense—the Central Board of Pollution Control pointed out that it registered whopping reductions in PM 10 levels (-44%), PM2. 5 (-34%) and Nitrogen Oxide (-51%). The following week, with the lockdown, saw a 71% plunge in all these indicators.<2> And it’s not just Delhi that is breathing easier thanks to the lockdown. A recent (and surprisingly fact-based) gem from WhatsApp University that was doing the rounds on the platform revealed that, thanks to clear skies,  you could now, for the first time, view the foothills of the Himalayas in neighbouring Himachal from Jalandhar in Punjab<3>. The clean air that has replaced the dense smog in some of our most polluted regions is not just a glimpse of an experience that most Indians have almost forgotten existed. In our current fight against COVID-19 there is a more serious reason why this is worth paying attention to. The clean air that has replaced the dense smog in some of our most polluted regions is not just a glimpse of an experience that most Indians have almost forgotten existed. In our current fight against COVID-19 there is a more serious reason why this is worth paying attention to. Initial research<4> by Harvard’s T.H Chan School of Public Health has suggested that there could be a correlation between air pollution and the lethality of COVID-19. Through their findings, based on data from nearly 3000 counties in the United States, researchers at the University have pointed out that a marginal increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 could contribute to a higher fatality rate among those affected with coronavirus. The Chan study showed that counties that registered on average as little as one microgram per cubic meter of PM2.5 more than their counterparts had a COVID fatality rate that was 15% higher. Theirs is not the only contribution to the increasing evidence. A similar study in Italy by scientists from Denmark’s Aarhus University pointed out that regions in the northern part of that country, which faced high levels of air pollution, also registered the highest number of coronavirus-related deaths (12% versus 4.5% in the southern part)<5>. This trajectory mirrors a 2003 study by the University of California which found that the impact of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in China was more fatal in parts of the country that suffered from poor air quality<6>. This should be a matter of concern for all of us who live in regions where the air quality has perennially remained poor. Severe exposure to foul air, as many in Delhi are now accustomed to, inevitably means that most of us have gradually developed weaker respiratory systems and other conditions that would make us even more vulnerable to a virus like COVID-19, even among those who may otherwise be young, work out, do not smoke and partake of a nutritious diet. India’s situation is horrific in this regard. A study conducted by the Kolkata-based Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute (CNCI) found that the key indicators of respiratory health and lung function of schoolchildren in Delhi between four and 17 years of age were markedly worse than their counterparts elsewhere. Indeed, the figures were twice to four times as bad for children in Delhi than in other places, and were not reversible. This is an issue that also threatens to derail our economic progress as a nation. While the Prime Minister invoked the famous 18th century Urdu poet Meer Taqi Meer to rightly point out that ‘Jaan hai to jahan hai’ while announcing the national lockdown, the economic implications of deteriorating air quality, as with COVID-19, are ominous--with a 2013 World Bank study estimating that welfare costs and lost labour income due to air pollution, cost the exchequer nearly 8.5 percent of India’s GDP. Labour losses due to air pollution (in terms of number of man days lost for instance) resulted in a reported loss of $55.39 billion in a single year. Further, premature deaths cost the country an estimated $505 billion or roughly 7.6 percent of our country’s GDP. In other words, toxic air is a silent killer, and today in India, the air we breathe has in itself become a public health crisis — one that is slowly, but surely, crippling our country. Despite all of this, comprehensive action to address this issue has been minimal.  After taking much flak for its myopic approach to the problem, the present government finally decided to announce the National Clean Air Programme, which an annual Round Table I convene (under the auspices of Air Quality Asia) had been demanding for three years. The NCAP is deemed to be our most comprehensive intervention on the subject, and – at least on paper -- sought to bring down particulate emissions in a list of cities in the country. If the etymological inspiration was a reference to China’s National Air Pollution Action Plan, which imposed stringent controls and guidelines on emissions and ushered in a breath-taking (or perhaps more suitably breath- giving) cleanup of their record levels of toxic air, the Indian version comes across as an uninspired and undercooked clone that only succeeded in raising eyebrows. For one thing, despite India’s wealth of civil society stakeholders and technical experts on the subject, there was limited public consultation on the plan and its targets. These groups could have used such a process to voice their concerns with the limited purview of the plan that was announced (only 102 cities have been included, whereas Greenpeace’s ‘Airpocalypse’ survey of 313 Indian cities suggests that at least 241 cities have abysmal air quality) and the unambitious targets that accompany it (the plan seeks to reduce PM 2.5 and PM 10 concentration by 20-30% by 2024, which activists have argued would not ensure that the majority of the attainment cities will even hit national standards for decent air, let alone the international standards of the WHO). The timing was also a matter of concern. While there were preceding declarations by the government of a comprehensive national level air quality intervention in the pipeline since 2017, the actual plan was suddenly announced ahead of the 2019 General Elections -- and only as the government closed their first innings, during which they enjoyed an absolute majority in Parliament. The announcements therefore came across as tokenism rather than a concrete willingness to tackle this problem head-on. It also appears that the plan does not have legal measures incorporated within it to ensure accountability and penalise non-implementation which has essentially curtailed the effectiveness with which it has been implemented on the ground. Finally, in terms of fiduciary resources, the plan was, in its first year, allocated a paltry 300 crores (including 10 lakhs for a city with a population less than 500,000 and 20 lakhs for a city with 500,000-1,000,000 individuals), which is hardly likely to scratch the surface of the problem. And while the government distributed 280 cores, it appeared to be doing so in a manner that beats conventional thinking, given that Delhi, the most publicised city on the list, ranked the city with the worst air quality in the world, failed to get a single rupee allocated to clean up its air in year one. To be fair, there is no point in blaming this government alone, even if one could convincingly argue that given the mandate they received, they had the political capital to gain strong ground in the fight for clean air. The issue of air pollution is ultimately a classic case study of the “tragedy of the commons” problem, and we are all guilty of the sin of omission. The political class, notoriously incapable of long-term thinking, has offered little leadership to tackle this problem (and instead preferred to trade brickbats, as we saw between several states during the last winter smog). As I have personally found out from trying to generate interest in the Round Tables I have convened, convincing them to get to the table to even deliberate on this issue has been far from easy. There is no point in blaming this government alone, even if one could convincingly argue that given the mandate they received, they had the political capital to gain strong ground in the fight for clean air. And why should they, when the people they represent have largely not held their representatives accountable for their inactivity on this subject? Air quality is simply not an electoral issue in India. Astonishingly, nor is public health. Healthcare, as an electoral topic, was considered to be the prime concern for over 41% of the voters in the 2018 mid-term elections in the United States. In India on the other hand, as a concerned MP who has convened multiple high-level and cross-sectoral stakeholder gatherings to find solutions to our crisis of poor air, and as an Indian politician representing lakhs of people, I’ve been concerned at how little traction my efforts received. There is no doubt that neither public health, generally, nor air pollution, specifically, has yet won or lost an election for any Indian politician. While the premium placed on conventional indices of economic growth -- jobs, poverty eradication, financial growth, food security and so on -- is understandable in a country where the majority of our citizens hover around the poverty line, the matter gets further compounded when class gets involved. With rising levels of smog and poor air, those with the financial resources and means have turned to short term remedies such as air purifiers, N-95 masks, Ubers or even temporarily working from home in order to avoid stepping out and inhaling the toxic air around them. For those whose lives are dominated by the need for a daily wage and the basic necessities of sustenance, the air around them has to be endured as they pursue other priorities. Either way, politicians have been under no pressure to pay attention to air quality. Other problems---the lack of data to even adequately quantify the magnitude of the problem, bureaucratic bottlenecks that crop up in centre-state coordination, inadequate funding (as mentioned previously) and in some cases the cost of implementing solutions (how does one offer a compelling alternative to a farmer to not burn their stubble when the competition is a one-rupee matchbox and some gasoline?)—have all come together spectacularly to ensure that the issue of air quality has till recently been reduced to articles such as this and conference discussions in one of Delhi’s many air-purified 5-star hotels. So why write this then? Beyond the gloom and the unimaginable pain that many have faced, the ongoing pandemic has arguably challenged us to fundamentally re-think and re-align our priorities. Therein lies a series of opportunities that we must be courageous enough to explore and seize. For instance, the limited public expenditure on healthcare (currently at a woeful 1.28% of our GDP), must be improved at all levels. The COVID pandemic has shown us the importance of investing far more in an effective public health system. We are likely – I believe -- to witness a completely different mindset in the eyes of both the voter and the public representative when it comes to recognising the value of health as a public good. Even as we have suffered in these last few months, there is also a growing recognition that a failure to adequately shore up our public defence system will not just leave us vulnerable to future contagion, but would directly undermine our economic capabilities. At the end of the day, the engine of growth is the Indian workforce, and an unhealthy and vulnerable workforce will not generate the growth we need. All Indians have, at some point in the last few months, sat down to grapple with questions such as where the nearest hospital is, what sort of medical infrastructure does it have, how many doctors and nurses are there in one’s district, how much will treatment at a private hospital or clinic cost as opposed to a government facility, and what is the difference of quality between the two. Above all, we have asked ourselves the principal question: how can we ensure that we are never again put in such a position of vulnerability and risk? A unique opportunity stems from this. As a community we are starting to recognise that a healthy lifestyle in itself offers a vital line of defence against pandemics like COVID-19 . As a result, Indians are likely to unite against any aspect of their previous lives, such as chronic air pollution, that could threaten their health. At the same time, even as the premium on a healthy lifestyle grows steadily, the ongoing pandemic has forced us, as a community, to also engage with experiments that have upended and questioned the conventional way of how we work, how we move and how we consume. While these experiments could help us eventually be able to do more with less, I am confident that they could also offer us compelling focal points that can be leveraged to help produce a behavioural change when it comes to allied issues such as that of air quality. I remain confident that as a country we will collectively pull through our current crisis and win the fight against corona. Eventually the lockdown too will be lifted and we will inevitably have to kickstart the economy to make up for the time lost in the current slowdown. I am aware that we cannot realistically expect to continue to hold back our economic activity the way we are doing right now. Livelihoods matter almost as much as lives; they are what make lives worth saving.  But we should seize the opportunity to try and find a way to drive the economy forward without once again driving our air pollution levels through the roof. Renewable energy is part of the answer, and there are other steps the government must take. As I have long argued, we only need to look at our past for all the inspiration and encouragement we need in this fight. Today, for example, it is easy to forget that by 1940, Britain accounted for nearly 10 percent of the world’s GDP, while India had been reduced to a poor “third-world” country — a global poster child of poverty and famine. But rather than meltdown into chaos and indisposition, the governments of the day set aside their differences, rallied the political class together, and in alliance with the best of our civil society and grassroots pioneers of change, waged successive, and indeed successful campaigns against poverty, pestilence and patriarchy. We still have miles to go before we sleep, but we also know, that it can be done — and so too shall be the case with toxic air. We must not lapse into inaction when the lockdown is lifted and the silent killer of poor air quality resurfaces. In a country as diverse and stratified as ours, the crises that we are required to address daily are many, and often some will have to take priority over others. But ultimately, we must recognise that toxic air affects us all, no matter which part of the country we come from, what political and ideological affiliations we may have, or what socio- economic class we find ourselves in. Let’s defeat COVID, and let’s also make cleaner air an indispensable part of our defence against the next deadly contagion. We must recognise that toxic air affects us all, no matter which part of the country we come from, what political and ideological affiliations we may have, or what socio- economic class we find ourselves in. Let’s defeat COVID, and let’s also make cleaner air an indispensable part of our defence against the next deadly contagion.
The author gratefully acknowledges the invaluable contribution of John Koshy in the preparation of this article.
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