The LexGaze Weekly - WE THE PEOPLE

Revisiting International standards for ambient air: Making the air around us more breathable

Arijit Sanyal

Issue 20 | November 01, 2020

Climate change has proved to be the Achilles heel for developing and developed countries alike, and surprisingly the governments have been inclined towards pointing fingers at one another, instead of working towards a policy for making the environment around us more sustainable. While the world looks to recover from a  pandemic that  has killed millions, it has exposed the lack of global efforts to tackle climate change which approximately kills a million people globally every year [UNDP]. In a densely populated country like India, climate change has been catalysed by increasing vehicular pollution which has harmed ambient air, and played a role in increasing cases of acute respiratory diseases, heart attacks, lung cancer and other illnesses . [Lancet Commission]. The same report suggests that a considerable number of Indians have been living or working in places that do not meet the WHO air quality guidelines However, considering the same in light of ground realities in India, it leads us to addressing the primary problem concerning the highlighted problem viz, awareness.

The quality of air around us is determined by Ambient Air Quality Standard which lays down the maximum amount of certain pollutants in the air,to determine the quality of ambient air. The indicators used to calculate AAQS include ozone particles, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen and other carbon particles, which are not uniform as per the different international standards considering the demographic and industrial pattern of a given geographic area. A report shows that the WHO proscribes ozone particles higher then 50/ppb which rises to 80/ppb in the United States [aeroqual]. Though it might be argued that being a sovereign nation and one of the heavily industrialised countries, the United States has every right to regulate their AAQS. Here, a glaring defect in their parameters is highlighted when a comparison is made between the amount of sulphur dioxide allowed by the WHO and the US. While the WHO maintains an upper limit of 8/ppb, the same extends to 140/ppb in the United States, which is way above from what can be categorised as a safe limit [WHO]. These country specific parameters allow them to evade liability for inaction over degrading quality of air solely because of the higher upper limit their legislature has set in the first place.

While we move our focus to India, where people might be fighting a two-front war, viz against COVID and air pollution, we often notice how narrowly the term “air pollution” has been construed by policymakers. This has led to premature deaths owing to poor air quality which has played a significant role in increasing the share of acute respiratory and heart  ailments [WHO]. This has increased drastically  with vertical industrialisation and mass migration, coupled with stubble burning in remote areas in the neighbouring regions of densely populated cities. This is something the governments at  central and state levels have jointly failed to address.  While India has moved on to cleaner fuel before their targeted air, this is not sufficient in a densely populated country where air pollution isn’t just caused by vehicular emissions. Though this might play a part in reducing the Air Quality Index, it is expected to stay at a level which is still considered harmful. Despite India playing an acknowledgeable role as far as International Solar Alliance is concerned, and has taken steps to encourage the use of solar power on its soil, it is not expected to reap dividends anytime soon. he focus, therefore, should be on coal powered railway engines, factories using fossil fuels as their primary source of power generation, stubble burning and weak public transport amongst others .

While power related issues need a definite roadmap, the menace of stubble burning has endangered lives across northern and central India and over the recent years has become a recurring event especially during the months of winter. To deal with stubble burning and projects requiring environmental clearance, the government at the centre needs to part ways with its paralysed division of powers and set up a specific body dedicated to the two above issues. Moreover, strategic funding could be adopted for rewarding farmers who refrain from stubble burning and they could be considered for cheap or interest free loans to procure such equipment which would allow them to dispose of their stubble without endangering the environment [WEF]. Though a significant move, the government of India is expected to carry out parallel awareness drives in order to allow a greater number of farmers the benefits of the said prospective policy. However, this is not something which can be expected to be met with public outrage as people overwhelmingly supported stricter air quality regulation in a recently concluded survey [NY Times].