Severe winter smog forces schools across north India to close almost every year. Studies have established that children are the most vulnerable to air pollution, primarily due to their developing anatomy and brains.

However, while school closures disrupt education for all, they do little to protect less privileged students from the effects of air pollution: children from well-off families can stay safe at home using air purifiers but others may have no option but to breathe in polluted air.

Schools should be a healthy and safe space that enable all students to learn and grow equally. Some respite from air pollution in areas around schools could be offered by creating low-emission zones and advocating the shift to alternative modes of transport.

Low-emission zones are geographically defined areas where the operations of highly polluting motorised vehicles are restricted. The aim is to reduce vehicular emissions and vehicular congestion.

Given that 90% of transport sector emissions are due to road transport, a key part of finding solutions to air pollution around schools is addressing tailpipe emissions. Tailpipe emissions refer to gaseous and particulate byproducts of fuel combustion expelled from a vehicle’s exhaust pipe. Typically, the gaseous byproducts include oxides of nitrogen, sulphur and carbon.

Such low-emission zones are becoming increasingly common in Europe. Between 2019 and 2022, there was a 40% jump in the number of such zones. Some European cities have even piloted stricter variations of this idea: London has an Ultra Low Emission Zone in London, while in Oslo there is the Zero Emission Zone.

Developing low-emission school zones in India

In India, the guidelines of the Indian Roads Congress, a government body of highway engineers, could be taken forward to help designate school zones as low-emission zones.

These guidelines recommend that road-owning agencies implement a few interventions to improve the safety of children in “school zones”.

Low-emission school zones restrict the operation of polluting vehicles in school zones, especially during school hours. For maximum effectiveness, such restrictions would need to be applied to commercial and private vehicles.

Closing streets to vehicular traffic around schools is not new: an early example was in Bolzano, Italy, in 1989, when traffic outside a school was barred during pick-up and drop-off times. Since then, the concept has been replicated in Scotland and the UK. A study published in 2021 of 18 primary schools in London showed that nitrogen dioxide levels around the schools decreased by 23% when traffic was closed at pick-up at drop-off times.

Nitrogen dioxide is a major component of vehicular emissions: it irritates the airways in the human respiratory system and can trigger asthma and other chronic lung diseases. Children, the elderly, and those with existing respiratory diseases are at a higher risk for negative health effects from exposure to nitrogen dioxide.

Students arrive to attend classes at a school amid heavy smog, in Noida in November 2022. Credit: PTI.

Switch to cleaner modes of transport

A 2021 study found that around 48% of children in India walk to schools when both urban and rural regions are considered. However, one study of several Indian cities found that only about 11% of children walked to school and more than one-third travelled by school bus.

Motorised modes of passenger transport available for commuting to school include private two- and four-wheelers, school vans, autorickshaws, and buses either operated by schools, government, or private entities. But most of these vehicles run on petrol or diesel, exposing students to harmful pollutant emissions.

One immediate option is to push for and support the transition of school vehicles to using greener fuels.

To maximise environmental and health benefits, such a transition should be complemented by a shift to walking or cycling. Road infrastructure should simultaneously be improved for the safety of children walking to schools.

Way forward

India’s existing legal frameworks allow for the implementation of such initiatives. For example, Section 3 of the Environment (Protection Act), 1986, empowers the Centre to close, regulate, or prohibit any operations in certain areas to protect the environment, including the operation of vehicles. The declaration of “eco-sensitive zones” is an instance of these legal powers being exercised.

Similarly, Section 19 of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, empowers state governments to declare any area as “air pollution control areas” in consultation with the state’s pollution control board. They can then prohibit or restrict the use of certain fuels and appliances, including vehicles, in these areas.

The National Capital Territory of Delhi is an example of an “air pollution control area”. In 2022, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, the equivalent of a state pollution control board, prohibited the entry of some non-Bharat Stage VI diesel vehicles into Delhi.

A pollution-free environment for children to grow and learn enables higher cognitive ability, increased school enrolment, and improved schooling and employment outcomes. Green transport technologies and low-emission zones around schools could be important tools for a cleaner future.

Vaibhav Kush is a researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation, India.