[op-ed snap] An air of gloom: Polluted cities in India


Mains Paper 3: Environment | Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation, environmental impact assessment

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Not much

Mains level: “What makes north Indian cities the most polluted in the world?” and “How is the current situation a public health emergency?”



  1. 14 of the 15 most polluted cities in the world are in India
  2. It points to a public health emergency

City wise data: Survey done by the WHO

  1. Kanpur’s average PM 2.5 levels were 17 times the WHO limit in 2016, the cut-off year for the current study
  2. It was followed by Faridabad, Varanasi, Gaya and Patna. Delhi figured sixth, which is hardly any consolation

What makes north Indian cities the most polluted in the world?

  1. Northern India is a combination of rapid increase in pollution sources due to urbanisation and its inherent geographical disadvantage
  2. It is landlocked that makes this region extremely vulnerable to winter inversion leading to massive trapping of pollution
  3. This region does not have the advantage of a coastline
  4. At the same time, air pollution sources are proliferating that include motorisation, proliferation of industrial units, extensive use of solid fuels for cooking, massive construction activities, enormous problem of waste mismanagement, etc.
  5. Other experts have cited how the Indo-Gangetic plains are sandwiched between the Himalayas and the Vindhyas and are home to more than 600 million people with winds blowing from north-west to east, especially in winter, which carry pollutants from other regions
  6. This region requires more stringent interventions to counter its disadvantages

Meteorological conditions is not the only reason of causing pollution in north Indian cities

  1. Global climate change is also responsible for these increasingly high temperatures and frequent storms and much of this is man-made

It is a public health emergency

  1. Two years ago, a study on the cost of air pollution co-authored by the World Bank found that the country lost 1.4 million lives due to such contamination in 2013, shaving off a massive 8.5 per cent of GDP
  2. The case for controlling such pollution is thus incontrovertible in economic terms, if not in saving lives. Indians can live four years longer if we comply with WHO norms

What should be done?

  1. Measures that need to be taken aren’t rocket science
  2. (1) More efficient means of treating crop residue; (2) replacing smoky chulhas with efficient models if not LPG cylinders; (3) cracking down on construction debris and polluting thermal power stations; (4) restricting the number of vehicles being some of the main ones
  3. In order of priority, the chulhas are probably the most urgent because 200 million households continue to burn biomass within homes
  4. Switching to mass public transport in cities is well within the capacity of every city
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