Each year, almost six lakh Indias die prematurely due to air pollution, which is the fifth leading cause of death in the country. Of these, almost 35,000 deaths occur in the national capital. Even as Delhi government has sprung into action on January 1 to improve the air quality by regulating the number of cars of the streets, other Indian cities are breathing equally foul air, government data shows.

The National Air Quality Index network was announced last year by the government as an official reporting standard for air pollution levels that would allow for comparisons across cities. The data from government’s monitors in cities such as Patna, Raipur, Agra and Varanasi reveals that pollution levels are off the charts in many cities and that in the absence of strong measures, the problem isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.

“Even the government’s own, largely inadequate NAQI data reveals that 23 of the 32 stations across India are showing more than 70% exceedance of the national standards,” said Sunil Dahiya, Campaigner,Greenpeace India. “The pollution levels in a few Indian cities have the embarrassing distinction of having exceeded the toxic levels of Beijing and other Chinese cities, demonstrating levels at least ten times higher than the WHO standards, making air pollution truly a national emergency.”

Source: Greenpeace India.
Source: Greenpeace India.

Greenpeace India analysed the data provided by the NAQI portal and concluded that control strategies needs to move beyond just Delhi because air pollution seems to be a regional problem rather than just local one. The organisation said that steps are needed at national level to reduce the levels of particulate matter PM2.5 and PM10.

While Delhi was found to have pollution levels 12 times higher than World Health Organisation guidelines, another six cities – Lucknow, Faridabad, Ahmedabad, Kanpur, Agra and Varanasi – had pollution levels at least ten times as higher than permissible under these standards.

For instance, on November 29 last year, Patna’s air had 108 micrograms of PM 2.5 per cubic meter as compared to Delhi’s 78 micrograms per cubic meter. Beijing, meanwhile, had 81 micrograms of PM 2.5 per cubic meter of air.

Greenpeace also compared the levels of pollution in Indian cities to Beijing’s red-alert standard and estimated how many days the cities would be shut if they were following China’s standards of issuing alerts in times of severe air pollution. It turned out that in a 91-day period between September and November, Delhi met the Chinese criteria for 33 days while Lucknow met it for 40 days.

Source: Greenpeace India
Source: Greenpeace India

“The Government’s own data suggests that the air quality in several north Indian cities is worse than the air in Beijing, and yet we remain tentative in recognising this ‘airpocalypse’ as a pollution disaster,” Dahiya said in a press statement.

Shot in the dark

In 2014, the World Health Organisation released a list of world’s 20 most polluted cities, 13 of which were in India. Earlier, the Global Burden of Disease report had estimated air pollution to be the fifth deadliest killer in the country.

“Indian cities are witnessing a rapid increase in air pollution and untamed motorisation,” wrote Anumita Roychowdhury, head of the clean air programme at the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi. “Indian cities are witnessing a rapid increase in air pollution and untamed motorisation. Cities need to curb pollution from all sources, but vehicles need special attention as they emit toxic fumes within our breathing zone.”

Even as Indian cities remain exposed to critically high levels of toxic substances in their air, the absence of comprehensive data collection makes things worse.

“The data collection is not standardised. They are not necessarily measuring the same parameters,” said Bhargav Krishna from Public Health Foundation of India. “For instance, many of the CPCB [Central Pollution Control Board] and other monitors don’t measure PM 2.5 at all and even the measurement of PM 2.5 across different monitors is taken at different points of time. So you can't really do a retrospective analysis on these levels because they weren't measured at all."