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Top Causes & Solutions For Air Pollution in India

Programme Associate, Partners for Law in Development
Nov 22, 2017 11:21 AM 9 min read

Choking. Difficulty in breathing. Burning of eyes. Irritation of skin. Smoke all around. No, these are not the symptoms of any disease. Just some consequences of breathing in Delhi. And one hasn’t even begun with the long term ill-effects on health. 


After a state of public health emergency was declared in Delhi and NCR, last two weeks have seen people rushing to buy anti Air pollution masks and air purifiers for their homes. I, myself have been one of them. Of course, it is our privilege that we can afford these ‘anti-pollution’ measures. But are masks and air-purifiers the answer to this increasingly serious health hazard?


With current levels of Air Quality Index (AQI) we are not far from the day when oxygen cylinders will replace these toys! The media outcry has as before focused on the usual suspects of political lethargy and passing the buck. The core issues, no pun intended, hide behind a smoke-screen.


Let us then try to understand the underlying drivers and propose some actionable solutions for Air Pollution in India.


You might have heard the term AQI being thrown around a lot these days - what exactly does this number mean? Aside from being an indicator of daily air quality, AQI gives a reference point to gauge the associated health effects one may experience a few hours or days after breathing polluted air.


Different countries have their own air quality indexes, corresponding to different national air quality standards. In case of India, after several years of research IIT Kanpur has finally come out with a formula for calculating AQI.


The formula translates several air pollutant concentrations to a single number by quantifying and weighing their impact on human health and colour-coding ranges accordingly. An increase in AQI implies a larger percentage of population is likely to experience increasingly adverse health affects.


Source: IIT Kanpur


Air pollution in India is considered as the 5th largest killer, estimated to be responsible for 1.5 million deaths annually. India has the world's highest death rate from chronic respiratory diseases and asthma, according to the World Health Organisation. In Delhi, poor quality air irreversibly damages the lungs of 2.2 million or 50 percent of all children. 


In the last two weeks, Delhi has witnessed levels of PM2.5 (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns i.e. about 25-100 times thinner than human hair) and PM10 (particulate matter smaller than 10 microns) hitting 999 micrograms per cubic meter, while the safe limits for those pollutants are 60 and 100 respectively. Particulate matter is known to penetrate deep into lungs and blood streams, unfiltered due to its extremely small size, affecting respiratory and cardiac functions.




The Delhi smog is not a new phenomenon; November 2016 (remember odd-even?) too, saw the alarm bells ringing with regard to the air quality in the NCR region. Smog is a mixture of smoke and fog, composed of nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides, ozone, smoke and particulates of other less visible pollutants which include carbon monoxide, CFCs and radioactive sources.


Due to a lack of wind movement in the region and a parallel fall in temperature; dust, smoke and pollutants get locked up in the air, thereby settling near the surface to create smog. Most probable and speculated causes include:


  • Population growth: 
    • We might be tempted to dismiss the discourse of the ‘ever-increasing population’ but it is necessary that we take this into account. The rise has been astounding- from 36 crore in 1951, according to the national census that year, it rose to 105 and 121 crore in 2001 and 2011 respectively, and was put at 134 crore in May 2016. It is estimated to increase to 152 crore in 2030 and 170 crore in 2050
    • This increase in population has obviously led to an increase in vehicles, construction activities, industrial output and increasing consumption of fossil fuels for energy production, which as a larger consequence lead to smog
  • Vehicular emissions: 
    • With at least 10 million vehicles recorded on Delhi roads in the year 2016, vehicle exhaust has been a major contributor to the rising the pollution level of the city. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) have pegged the contribution of vehicular emissions to the air pollution in Delhi at 6.6 percent, while Research House UrbanEmissions puts the number at 30 percent.
    • IIT Delhi’s Centre for Atmospheric Studies said emissions from two wheelers were a “matter of concern”, contributing between 40-50 percent to increasing air pollution levels. With a public transport system that is overcrowded and overburdened, one cannot simply blame citizens for buying their own cars or not making use of the public transport
  • Crop burning: 
    • The country’s capital shares its border with the states of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. One of the major reasons for increasing air pollution levels in Delhi has also been attributed to crop burning by the farmers in these states
    • Due to the rising costs of employing manual labour/ the unaffordability of machines for clearing out the fields and a short-sowing period before the next crop season, farmers prefer to burn the stubbles in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh in order to clear up the lands
    • An estimated 35 million tonnes of crop stubbles are set afire in these states. The air movement carries the smoke, pollutants and dust back to Delhi which then gets locked up in the air and settle around the surface
  • Industrial emissions: Industries are responsible for up to 20 percent of toxic gases in the air. A study by IIT Kanpur suggests power plants, and restaurants are the biggest source of pollutants Sulphur Dioxide and Nitrogen Oxide. A study submitted to the Delhi government says that nearly 98 percent these pollutants are emitted by industries
  • Household air pollution: This one sure does sound surprising. What kind of air pollution can our household possibly cause? However, smoke from rural kitchens is like a slow but constant contributor to air pollution levels. The traditional fuel-burning chulas contribute to ambient air pollution. It is necessary to address the issues of cooking, space heating, and household air pollution caused by burning of wood and cow-dung in urban areas like Delhi as well
  • Open waste burning:
    • Despite National Green Tribunal’s directive to deem burning garbage as illegal, the practice is common and frequent. Other than open garbage burning, last few months have also seen landfills made up of garbage dump and waste catch fire, thereby contributing majorly to air pollution
    • IIT Kanpur’s study, ‘Comprehensive Study on Air Pollution and Green House Gases (GHGs) in Delhi’ stated that “it is a myth that Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) is not burned in Delhi. The MSW burning is widespread in Delhi and NCR, more frequently in winter. Delhi has an estimate of 190 to 246 tons/day of MSW burning (that’s about 2-3 per cent of the 8,390 tons/day of MSW generated)”


Despite the seriousness of the situation, air pollution has been relegated as a non-issue in a country with other, more important social, economic and political problems.


We do not realize that the heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, respiratory infections, and trachea, bronchus and lung cancer that we suffer from and hear about are frequently triggered by air pollution. Our attention has been focused on band-aid approaches such as the odd-even traffic scheme in Delhi or firecracker bans on Diwali. 


It is not difficult to note that all of the probable causes mentioned above are inter-related. More importantly, air pollution must not be seen as a temporary problem which can be ignored; the signs are too evident to be overlooked.


The void in terms of action has at times been filled by judicial activism, such as Delhi’s switch from diesel to CNG several years ago, or the recent firecracker ban. Furthermore, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) did ban diesel vehicles in the NCR that were more than 10 years old, but the implementation of the same has been quite slow.


The situation does not spell a complete doom for us if certain steps are taken.


  • Farming interventions: 
    • Farmers must be encouraged to grow other crops along side paddy and wheat such as pulses, cotton, fruits and vegetables in order to reduce the mass production of paddy fields which leaves behind an even larger quantity of rice husks and straw. The residual straw and husk after harvest can be used as an input in coal power plants
    • One can also gasify the straw in a two-stage process that yields a fuel gas that can meet cooking, heating and power generation needs in the village in the first stage, and any type of transport fuel – diesel, aviation turbine fuel, methanol or CNG – in the second. A ban on stubble burning will only alienate the farmers without providing a means to reduce their burden as well
  • Mandatory LPG: LPG stoves must be made mandatory in Delhi, Punjab and other neighbouring states
  • Mining ban: Mining in the Aravali range must be completely discontinued and attention should be given to creating a green belt around the NCR region
  • Industrial waste:
    • Industries must dispose fly ash completely and should only use superior quality coal for their plants for production of less carbon and residue. Furthermore, all small thermal power plants must be discontinued and capacity of gas-based power plants must be increased. The government can also subsidise gas power and impose a high-pollution cess on coal  
    • No new coal power plants must be set-up and the State must focus at alternative fuels of energy and invest in the same.  The Niti Aayog had, in June 2017, suggested a “cap and trade” scheme to control air pollution from industries. While this scheme is still in a study phase, if implemented, it can control a major source of pollutants
  • Road works:
    • The civic authorities must convert all roads to surfaced category and must repair roads where bitumen is loose and potholes have been created. Furthermore, all the digging and maintenance work must be completed on time in order to avoid inconvenience to the commuters (thereby further congesting the road and increasing vehicular emission) and an increase in dust particles
    • Vacuuming of roads must be avoided during peak hours. Emphasis must be placed on vegetation barriers; it is not only environment and cost-friendly but also useful for beautification purposes
  • Fuel:
    • The government must import low sulphur petrol and diesel and introduce pollution cess on high sulphur fuel. It should also reduce GST on BS-VI (Bharat Stage VI) compliant vehicles and impose a higher-cess on non-BS-VI compliant vehicles
    • More focused attention should be paid to developing fuel-efficient two-wheelers; the State must not solely focus on four-wheelers
  • Public transport: Public transport and its improvement must become the government’s highest priority, not only with respect to air pollution and election promises but also as a long-due requirement for people
  • Domestic waste:
    • Solid waste and garbage burning must be strictly monitored by local police and civic authorities; open dumping must be controlled and waste plants must be monitored 24*7 for emissions and maintenance
    • Experts advocate a complete ban on garbage and waste burning and estimate zero emissions from this source could result improve the air quality by 5-10 percent


And last but not the least, the central and State government must ignore their political differences and work together to envisage and implement long-term solutions; and not treat this problem are merely an ‘environment issue’. With Delhi serving as a home for both -  their interests, at least in this matter, should be aligned.


A look at what other cities are doing...



The Indian city is converting its 6,000 buses to compressed natural gas and discouraging the car. So far, says the city, it has reduced traffic pollution by about 20% in a few years and one in four people who used to travel by car now use public transport.


Oslo (Norway)

Oslo plans to halve its climate emissions by 2020 and proposes a large no-car zone, the building of 40 miles of new bike lanes, steep congestion charges, a rush-hour fee for motorists, and the removal of many parking spaces.



The Finnish capital plans to drastically reduce the number of cars on its streets by investing heavily in better public transport, imposing higher parking fees, encouraging bikes and walking and converting inner city ring roads into residential and walking areas. The idea is to make the city’s public transport so good that no one will want a car by 2050.



Zurich has capped the number of parking spaces in the city, only allows a certain number of cars into the city at any one time, and is building more car-free areas, plazas, tram lines and pedestrianised streets. The result has been a dramatic reduction in traffic jams, and less pollution.