Urban Air Pollution


Urban Air Pollution
Urban Air Pollution

A recent report from World Health Organization stated that 93% of adolescents around the globe breathe air with pollution intensity that surpasses their guidelines. Ozone, soot, dust and sulfur oxides are increasing menace for the mankind.

According to the World Global Ambient Air Quality database, 9 out of 10 people breathe highly polluted air and over 80% of the urban dwellers are victims of outdoor pollution that exceeds health calibers. Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health had estimated that there were around 6.5 million premature deaths globally including 1.1 million from India due to air pollution.

Air Pollution in India

In 2014, Delhi was designated as the world’s most polluted city by World Health Organisation. In 2018, WHO once again disclosed that 14 out 15 most polluted cities around the globe are in India.

A report that outlined 2016 data for 4300 cities, graded 14 Indian cities among the 20 most polluted ones globally. While Delhi was ranked at number six, Gaya, Faridabad, Kanpur, Patna and Varanasi came ahead of it, by PM2.5 levels. Particulate Matter 2.5 or PM2.5 is an air pollutant or droplet in air having diameter less than or equal to 2.5 microns. It brings short-term health effects, causes the air to appear hazy and reduces visibility when its level goes high in the air. Particulate Matter 10 or PM 10 are air pollutants with diameter less than or equal to 10 microns. They do not remain trapped in the mouth, throat or nose but go deep into the lungs.

With over 3 million population, Kanpur topped the list with a yearly average of 319 microns of PM2.5. Several population choked cities including Kanpur, Faridabad, have only one PM2.5 monitoring station each, while Delhi has several. WHO researchers’ faces this problem while using alternative data sources such as chemical transport models and satellite remote sensing along with ground monitoring stations. It is clear from this exercise that air pollution is not an issue for metropolises alone, even though they have conventionally been the focus of alleviation efforts. Such discrepancy in data quality is prevails across the world.

Various studies show that the largest cause of Ambient Air Pollution in India is actually household air pollution. According to a 2018 international study titled “Burden of disease attributable to major air pollution sources in India” revealed that 11 lakh deaths were attributable to ambient air pollution in 2015. Out of these around 2.6 lakh were because of household air pollution. Similar conclusion was drawn by a committee on Air Pollution and Health Related Issues in its report available on the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare’s website. It concluded that combustion of solid fuels in households accounted for 26% of the particulate matter.

80% of the population that comprises of two-thirds of country’s population lives outside the cities. These households highly depend on biomass such as dung and wood for cooking and heating. Agricultural practices such as burning of crops also remain widespread. This smoke whirls over major Indian cities like Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai where it commingles with the exhaust from traffic, emissions from factories and construction dust. Inland features like hills and mountains also trap this smoke, leaving a very little space to breathe easy.

In north India, winter means a reduction in wind speed and increase in moisture levels due to retreating monsoon which prevents dust and particulate matter from being driven out. Moreover, Delhi’s atmosphere gets affected from the toxic and unburned carbon particles coming from Punjab due to burning of agricultural stubble apart from its own industrial waste, road dust and vehicular emissions. These reasons contribute to the high pollution loads which put Delhi at the top of the list among the most polluted cities in the world.

Sources and Analysis

  • For many cities in India dust has become a major problem. It gets boosted in areas where roads are not paved. Conventionally, almost every public area, sidewalks and roadways are manually swept. Minor areas get curtailed or inadequate services compared to major cities depending on the availability of the resources. Often the swept dust is dumped on the roadsides which split up as soon as vehicles start moving during the day. A preferable substitute would be trucks fitted with vacuum cleaners to gulp the dust from the streets or water sprinklers which could suppress the leftover dust from resuspension. The operational cost of manual sweeping and mechanized sweeping would probably be similar as the former is a labor intensive exertion.  Most of the Indian cities are vulnerable to the road dust which accounts for 30%-40% of the PM10 pollution. Hence, for curbing the particulate pollution, a prompt intervention is crucial for this source.
  • During various construction activities which includes block cutting, demolition, excavation, road building, mixing, loading & unloading of debris, drilling etc., a huge amount of particles are emitted. Moreover, vehicular movement around the construction sites proliferate the particles by crushing and pulverizing.According to several studies, construction accounts for around 10% of particulate emissions every year. Government should bring in norms and regulations to force the construction industry to use advanced technologies and mechanisms into practice.
  • Diesel generators are still widely used as a substitute to electricity and frequent power breakdowns by over 400 million people. Though proposal has been laid down for 100 GW of solar power, coal is still the primary source of electricity in India. Thermal power stations are major source of pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur. It is essential to introduce low-NOx burners, mandating of flue gas desulfurization units, upgrading the competency of dust collectors for clean procurement of electricity. Major countries around the globe such as USA, Australia, China, and Europe have been benefitted by implying such technologies and policies.
  • Another censorious issue is indoor air pollution. Every day a huge mass of people get exposed to such pollution. Burning of solid fuels like dung-cakes and firewood which are mainly used for cooking purposes leads to high level emission of pollutants resulting to an enormous source of air pollution within the country. Reportfrom Global Burden of Disease assessment states that air pollution has become a persistent health hazard. Over 1 million premature deaths annually occur in India because of air pollution. According to Census 2011, 89% of rural population and 35% of urban population used to use non-LPG fuels compared to 94% and 52% respectively in 2001.Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojna for providing LPG connections to BPL households is a key step to deal with this problem. However, India being a diverse country, in addition to LPG connections, consumers should also be encouraged to switch to clean burning options such as induction stoves provided power supply is available in rural communities.
  • With the expansion of cities,it is necessary to promote clean and safe public transport system. Public transport system has failed to cope up with the rapid pace of urbanisation, thus aggravating the burden of diseases from air-pollution. Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission had benefitted the major cities like Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore etc. in establishing formal public transport system by increasing and improving the fleet. A huge number of new buses were delivered since 2009 under this scheme. However, to meet the demands of the current population and shift the passengers of the two-wheelers and four-wheelers into the public transport system, it is necessary to at least triple the current fleet. Main hiccups have been in maintenance, comfort, safety and reliability of the public transportation system. Additionally, it is essential that these vehicles meet the global emission standards otherwise air quality will again deteriorate. Government also needs to find out ways to integrate walking and cycling for short trips. This simple initiative could curtail a huge amount of air pollution.
  • On an average 35 to 45 million tons of municipal solid wastes are generated every year and by 2030, this figure is expected to cross 150 million tons a year. The national capital region alone generates 10000 tons a day. Only 50-90% of the waste are collected from various parts to the city depending on residential and commercial activities, rest are eventually burnt. Most of the cities do not operate landfills and waste management collections. In medium and small scale cities, waste collection and landfill facilities are very limited which worsens the problem of open waste burning.

Smart City

A smart city uses digital technologies to amplify the quality and performance of urban services such as transportation, utilities and energy in order to reduce wastage resource consumption and overall costs.

In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi initiated the 100 smart cities program with the objective to provide good infrastructure; introduce transparent processes; attract investment etc. so that citizen fell happy and safe.

Combining this with Swachh Bharat Mission, it could be a perfect platform to revamp the national ambient monitoring programme to study the data on day to day basis in accurate, transparent and reliable manner.

How much would it cost to be environmentally smart?

  • On an average 1 crore rupees is needed to monitor a station continuously having all measuring criteria. Annual maintenance fee will be an additional 10%.
  • Around 30 stations are required in each city. So for 50 cities, 1500 stations are required which means an investment of 3000cr (including 10% annual maintenance fees for a decade). Number of station can be ±10 depending on big city like Delhi and small city like Indore.
  • Cost of infrastructure, personnel and training would be an additional 100%.
  • These sums up to 7500cr a decade assuming a 50% hike in the prices and fees.

In January 2015, 13.9 million metric tons of petroleum products were consumed in India- according to reports from Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell. Hence, adding 50 paise per litre to petroleum products sold as cess would make Rs 695cr a month which is approximately Rs 8340cr a year – enough for covering the estimated costs for operating transparent and reliable air quality management system for in 50 cities for a decade.

Government Initiatives to Curb Pollution

  • Ban on petcoke in Delhi and National Capital Region;
  • Strict action against construction activities;
  • Strict observation on coal-fired plants;
  • Formation of Central Pollution Control Board and Delhi Pollution Control Committee;
  • Regular field surveillance by Central Pollution Control Board;
  • GRAP- Graded response Action Plan adopted by Delhi to take stringent actions on improving the air quality in the city;
  • Upgradtion of Central Control Room in CPCB;
  • SAMEER- a mobile application launched for grievance redressal;
  • FAME India scheme introduced by the government for promotion of electric and hybrid vehicles in the country to curb vehicles running on fossil fuels. (FAME- Faster Adoption And Manufacture of Electric Vehicles in India);
  • High-level task force implemented in PMO to coordinate actions at national level;
  • Central government scheme to reduce stubble burning and encouraging in-situ management;
  • Regularly directing and monitoring by Minister and Secretary, MOEFCC;
  • A detailed action plan by Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change;
  • Augmentation of Air Quality monitoring station in NCR and Delhi;
  • BS-VI norms to be implemented by 2020 to reduce vehicular emission.

                                                                 Air Quality Index

AQI Category

Associated Health Impact



Minimal Impact



Sensitive people may feel minor breathing discomfort



People with heart disease and asthma may encounter breathing problem



Discomfort to people on prolonged exposure; breathing problem to heart patient

Very Poor


On continuous exposure, people may have respiratory illness. Larger effect on people with heart and lung diseases



Respiratory effects on healthy people; serious health hazard on people with heart and lung diseases; possibility of experiencing health impacts even during light physical activity.

In Delhi, PM2.5 drives the high AQI value, while sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide drives it in Chennai. An additional pollutant found in Bengaluru in ozone. AQI values indicate health impacts on humans as well as recommend which pollutant the city needs to curb.


Air pollution needs to be addressed urgently and effectively. It leads to non-communicable diseases such as respiratory disease, lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. Children are more likely to develop infectious diseases like tuberculosis and asthma.

However, in spite of obvious link between pollution control and public health, hardly there has been any joint effort between the Ministries of Health and Environment.

An innovative approach to curb agriculture stubble could be to turn the farm residues into resources like biofuels and fertilizers with the help of technological options, supported by climate change funds.

Human health gets seriously affected by environment degradation. It needs immediate attention and authorities cannot deal with it at leisure. Tribunal need to adopt strict approach to make statutory authorities accountable to their actions. They are trustees of people and any failure from them harms the citizens and the environment.

It should also be noted that pollution is being measured & reported for the very first time in most of the Indian cities. Hence, it is possible that these problems had been prevailing in the past also but attentions were never given in the same manner as today. It is likely, with more measurements and reporting pollution problem in India will deteriorate before improving. Therefore, instead of panicking that India tops the global list of pollution, gathering information is essential for the counteroffensive against poor air quality.

We need to sacrifice our artificial comforts and strive towards reducing pollution by investing on environment friendly technologies so that we are able to leave a robust planet for our future generations. It should be remembered that “Fresh air is a birth right”.


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