Editorial: Home truths on air pollution hit hard

The US President Donald Trump set off a little Twitter firestorm by describing India’s air quality as filthy. For Indians, the question of whether it was appropriate to say something like this, and that too as bluntly, is far less important than the real issue at hand: the terrible air quality in this country.
Editorial: Home truths on air pollution hit hard


This is that time of the year when the country – or at least a fairly large swathe of it – is reminded of the smothering blanket of pollution that we live under.
This is largely a result of the burning of crop stubble by farmers to prepare the soil for the rabi crop in States such as Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh. As a result, air quality plummets in the National Capital Region of Delhi and a vast area in the Indo-Gangetic plain. Pushed by the Supreme Court, the Centre has promised to come up with a legislation to deal with the problem. This has led the Court to keep in abeyance its decision to appoint Retired Justice Madan Lokur as a one-man commission to make recommendations to end pollution as a result of the stubble burning menace.
It is important to stress that the new law is addressed to deal with the issue in the National Capital Region and the adjoining areas. While there is no doubt that Delhi and its adjoining areas suffer badly, the issue of air quality must be addressed holistically. At the very least, this means addressed for the entire country. There is no surprise that many people feel there are times when those in power need to be reminded that Delhi is not India, only a small part of it. This is one such time.
An anguished Chief Justice SA Bobde said in court that “people were choking” and that this “needs to be curbed”, which is undeniable. But the issue of air quality goes well beyond stubble burning. Industrial pollution, vehicular pollution, and to a lesser extent such things as fireworks all contribute to the problem. One of the issues that doesn’t receive much mention, particularly in urban areas, is that of dust being kicked up by vehicular movement on the roads. A United Nations report highlighted that dust from poorly paved and unpaved roads can cause a “serious air pollution problem in areas with expanding transport and construction networks.” It is estimated that half or more of PM 2.5 pollution in many Indian cities is made up of dust.
The country needs to address air pollution problems swiftly; mere declarations of intent in documents such as the National Clean Air programme are not enough. Instead of criticising Trump for crossing a boundary and ostensibly hurting national sentiment, we would do better to wake up and acknowledge the reality. Our air quality is truly filthy.

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