Morning walks in Jodhpur, a historical city in the Indian desert state of Rajasthan, rarely bring the experience that was the norm as recent as two decades ago. The rejuvenating gusts of wind, the ubiquitous greenery, the tranquility of nature…all have been overwhelmed by the chaos and pollution of the new era.
Today, Jodhpur, a city that is home to 1 million people, holds the dubious distinction of being ranked the 30th most polluted city in the world. However, Jodhpur is not the only city in India that faces this problem. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 13 Indian cities rank in the top 20 most polluted cities in the world. India’s air pollution might be worse than what people imagine. It is commonly known that in most big Indian cities, the particulate matter 2.5 (P.M 2.5) is more than that recorded in Beijing, which, until very recently, held the record for the most polluted city in the world. In many large Indian cities, the recorded figures are more than four times the acceptable limits.
It is common knowledge that air pollution has a negative impact on people’s health. People living in areas with dangerous levels of air pollutants are more susceptible to asthma than others. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), ground level ozone, sulfur oxide, particulate matter, and nitrogen οxide exacerbate asthma. Apart from asthma, other diseases triggered by air pollution include cardiovascular and respiratory problems. Reproductive health is also vulnerable due to high pollutants in the air. Premature birth rate has gone up over decades.
Over 35 lakh [Lakh= Indian unit of measurement equal to 105] babies are born preterm, out of which 3 lakh babies die due to complications, making India the country with the highest number of infant deaths. More than 5.5 million people die prematurely due to air pollution worldwide, with India and China accounting for 55% of these deaths; 1.4 million died in India alone in 2013, while China come out on top with a record number of as high as 1.6 million.
Air pollution’s ubiquitous influence casts a dark shadow on the economy of countries as well. According to a study based on the data compiled in the 2011 census, India loses $640 billion due to dangerous exposure of the population to particulate matter across the country, which is 10 times more than it had spent on healthcare in 2011. Moreover, people who are exposed to such dangerous level of particulate matter can lose up to 6.4 years of their life. Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World and a famous attraction, is reported to be slowly turning yellow due to the excessive amounts of PM10 and PM 2.5 in the air.
Water and food are indispensable for our living. With air pollution, agriculture has also been affected significantly. The crops that farmers yield are often severely damaged due to high levels of pollutants in the air. There is a lot of distress among farmers as air pollution has also reduced growth and crop yields. If a particular plant species is grown in a polluted environment, then that plant is susceptible to a greater amount of “injuries” than other plants. Some pollutants affect the soil directly, turning it infertile. Some common pollutants that affect agriculture include sulphur oxide, fluoride, particulate matter, ammonia and chlorine. Damage to plants can be evident in many ways; leaves turn yellow and plants succumb to death after recurring “injuries”. Moreover, chemicals that farmers use and are not properly monitored and circulated, such as herbicides, fertilizers, pesticides, like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), negatively affect soil fertility as well. More significantly, polluted food products end up in the food chain, directly impacting our health and well-being.
Air pollution needs our serious attention due to its widespread impact. The first step in solving this issue is by raising awareness. Fortunately, the media has done its bit in bringing this topic to the foreground. It has forced the government to opt for modern technology, like the Supercritical technology, in its thermal power plants. Though curtailing the amount of coal used in India would be the best way forward, we cannot ignore the fact that coal in India is cheaply and widely available and therefore, an efficient source of energy. However, renewables like solar and wind are showing a promising future. The present government has decided to go for solar energy in a big way. Already, the cost of producing solar power has dropped below that of coal. If things continue in this way, then, hopefully, by the end of 2022, India would be able to produce 100 GW in solar energy, as promised by the Prime Minister.
In agriculture, we are taking tentative steps to reduce the use of fertilizers. The proposal of the government to produce soil health cards for all farmers is a welcome step, leading to a reduced use of fertilizers. Organic food is becoming more popular, largely due to the awareness raised about the health impact of polluted and contaminated food. There are already many farms who cater to these demands.
However, there is still a long way ahead of us, but if every individual makes a contribution, then India might just be able to see a more sustainable future someday.