Northern India’s air pollution crisis is reaching alarming levels of toxicity, and as the Supreme Courts raps state governments to take stricter measures to curb deteriorating conditions, the Uttar Pradesh (U.P.) government is claiming the hazardous air is coming from Pakistan.
On December 2, the apex court resumed hearing cases related to construction activity in Delhi and neighboring states after it was banned owing to worsening air quality. Arguing that closures may affect the sugar cane industry, which contributes over 17 percent to the U.P.'s GDP as per 2018 data, Advocate Ranjit Kumar said “U.P. is on down wind, the air is mostly coming from Pakistan.”
Although Chief Justice NV Ramana quipped and dismissed the subject, the U.P. government has routinely been criticized for displaying a lack of accountability in tackling the issue. Eight cities from the state are part of the world’s 15 most populated cities, based on average air quality levels through the year in 2020.
Residents of Lucknow, U.P.’s capital, already have an estimated life expectancy loss of 12.2 years.
India is the world’s second most polluted country, with air pollution shortening life expectancy by an average of 6.3 years, according to the Air Quality Life Index by the University of Chicago. “A quarter of India’s population is exposed to pollution levels not seen in any other country, with 248 million residents of northern India on track to lose more than eight years of life expectancy if pollution levels persist,” the report reads. Residents of Lucknow, U.P.’s capital, already have an estimated life expectancy loss of 12.2 years. The city has pollution 13 times greater than World Health Organization guidelines.
For the past few years, as north India’s air pollution worsened with air quality consistently staying between ‘severe’ to ‘hazardous’ in many cities during the winter months, both the state and central governments have blamed stubble burning as a major contributing factor. Stubble burning is a practice commonly employed by the farming states of Punjab, Haryana, and U.P. that involves farmers burning leftover farm debris on their fields to prepare it for the winter crop.
As an alternative to keeping the construction and sugarcane industries up and running, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath appealed to farmers to stop stubble burning and for people to use public transport. However, stubble burning contributes to ten percent of air pollution, lawyers representing the center recently told the Supreme Court. In another study the court cited, farmers stubble burning accounted for a mere 4 percent of air pollution. Industries, transport, and dust account for 75 percent, becoming the core factors that need to be tackled when handling the crisis.
Additionally, stubble burning events in Punjab, Haryana and parts of U.P. have come down this year with close to 1,800 incidents being reported in October compared to nearly 4,900 incidents in 2020 for the same period, according to the central government’s air quality commission.
Moreover, activity in the sugarcane industry that the U.P. wants resumed, are a major source of air pollution owing to the machinery that is used and the carbon ash that is produced. Earlier this year, the National Green Tribunal had directed the U.P. pollution control board to undertake a special drive to find remedial measures after taking cognizance of how blatant flouting of environmental norms by sugar mills across the state is severely damaging the health of locals living around such mills.
Down to Earth reported how the state’s Gorakhpur district, a major hub for sugarcane production, had thousands of illicit units in operation.
U.P. was the largest emitter of PM 2.5, particulate matter considered to be detrimental to health, a study by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water found. A significant share of emissions were from solid-fuel use in households and the high population density of the state that relied on such fuel, research found. The state’s pollution control board also identified unpaved roads and construction sites as major contributors to pollution in bigger cities.
U.P. reported the highest ambient and household air pollution, according to data published in Lancet Planetary Health last year. Along with Maharashtra, Bihar, West Bengal, and Rajasthan, the five states accounted for over 50 percent of the deaths attributed to air pollution in India.
Air pollution was cited as the cause behind 349,000 deaths, according to the study. U.P. has the second-highest annual average of particulate pollution after Delhi. Over 217,000 people died due to outdoor pollution and nearly 150,000 due to household air pollution in the state in 2020.
Deaths due to ambient particulate matter pollution and ambient ozone pollution increased by 115 percent and 139 percent respectively.
In India, the death rate due to household air pollution decreased by over 64 percent from 1990 to 2019 owing to alternate forms of fuel. But deaths due to ambient particulate matter pollution and ambient ozone pollution increased by 115 percent and 139 percent respectively.
Researchers say the lack of a comprehensive database will only make it more difficult to determine whether India can meet National Clean Air Programme goals, which targets to reduce particulate concentrations by 20 to 30 percent by 2024. And although $1.6 billion has been allocated to clean the toxic air under this program, its implementation on ground is far from ideal, Quartz reported. It said 17 cities with above-average air pollution identified in the state have received over 60 crore rupees in the last two years - a small allocation considering 60 percent of the funds are budgeted to monitor air quality and train officials, leaving very little to combat the issue.