Trump’s criticism may be gratuitous, but India’s air quality needs urgent attention
President Donald Trump’s scathing description of India’s air as “filthy” may have come as an embarrassment for the government, but it has not provoked a fierce nationalistic backlash in response to a foreign leader’s insult. Looking at the worsening pollution in northern parts of the country, triggered by stubble burning and later the Dussehra festivities, even Mr. Trump’s critics found no cudgels to pick up, while others readily agreed with him. The U.S. President’s remarks are, of course, gratuitous, considering that he has spent his term dismantling many environmental regulations, including those relating to pollution and emissions from coal plants and automobiles; his criticism of India and China is also incongruent as they have pledged to implement the Paris Agreement while Mr. Trump has pulled the U.S. out of the pact. Unfortunately, mere resolve cannot raise India’s stature. Sensors of the Central and State Pollution Control Boards and other private stations across the north currently show PM2.5, or fine particulate matter levels, in the very unhealthy or even hazardous bands. There is mounting concern about the health impacts, but the Centre has so far attempted to brazen it out by denying any confirmed link between bad air quality and a shorter lifespan. Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar last year said no Indian study on such a correlation was available. That view has been challenged, and WHO expressed worry about the situation. There is the added dimension of COVID-19 infection today, with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health contending that a one microgramme rise in PM2.5 is associated with an 8% increase in the death rate due to the novel coronavirus, based on long-term exposure data in the U.S.
India is seeking to address its chronic air quality crisis partly by raising emission standards and fuels. The country adopted the BS-VI fuel standard earlier this year, potentially lowering vehicular pollution, although the national air quality standard for annual average PM2.5 is 40 mcg per cubic metre, which is four times the WHO limit. It took the COVID-19 lockdown to let people experience clean air once again, with the conspicuous absence of vehicles. The unlock phase has reversed the ephemeral experience, as the burning of vehicular fuels has reverted to pre-lockdown levels, with no significant transition to green mobility, such as bicycle use, in urban centres. Continued burning of crop stubble in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh shows that the central sector scheme providing remedies in the form of farm mechanisation and management alternatives needs fresh impetus. No more time can be lost in addressing the crisis of foul air, as the country prepares to hasten with development in a post-COVID-19 era.