The latest report by Greenpeace India, analyzing the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB)'s data from ten major cities of Southern India revealed that average pollution levels in the cities far exceed the latest World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. The analysis is a reminder that air pollution is a public health crisis that is not confined to cities only in Northern India.
Air pollution data from ten cities - Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chennai, Amaravati, Visakhapatnam, Kochi, Mangalore, Puducherry, Coimbatore, and Mysore - were selected and analyzed based on the availability of data, population, and monitoring station networks. It was found that despite pandemic-induced lockdowns and subsequent reduction in economic activities, the annual average values of PM2.5 and PM10 exceeded WHO revised standards by many folds.
Coimbatore, Bengaluru, Mangalore, and Amaravati saw annual PM2.5 levels exceed WHO guidelines of 5 ug/m3 by 6 to 7 times. In Mysuru, Kochi, Chennai, and Pondicherry, PM2.5 levels exceeded the guidelines by 4 to 5 times.
In comparison, while annual PM10 levels in Visakhapatnam and Hyderabad exceeded the prescribed WHO guidelines of 15 ug/m3 by six to seven times, Bengaluru, Mangalore, Amaravati, Chennai, and Kochi recorded data that exceeded the limit by 3 to 4 times. Mysore, Coimbatore, and Pondicherry recorded PM10 data that exceeded the WHO guidelines for safe air by 2 to 3 times.
The primary contributors to worsening the air quality are fossil fuel-powered infrastructural development, industries, transport, waste burning, and construction activity. Chronic exposure to air pollution increases the likelihood of asthma, low birth weight, depression, schizophrenia, diabetes, stroke, lung cancer and can cause premature deaths.
Commenting on the analysis, Avinash Chanchal, Campaign Manager, Greenpeace India said, "The data shows that lockdown is not a solution to air pollution. We have to prioritize the immediate shift to clean energy and clean transport to stop more damage. If we look at Bengaluru's PM10 data, the annual average in most stations is exceeding not only WHO guidelines but NAAQS levels too."
"Making our urban transport networks accessible and sustainable can play a major role in combating India's urban air pollution crisis. The majority of the population in these cities is already using public transport or sustainable ways of transportation. But the infrastructural focus is still on private vehicles. Efforts and lifestyle of the masses must be appreciated and encouraged as they are contributing to making our cities sustainable," Chanchal said.
Terming the citizenry using public transport as 'Heroes', Chanchal added, "The pollution control boards must realize that no level of air pollution is safe and even the long term exposure of lower level of concentrations of air pollution can severely impact human health. Thus, the CPCB must revise the current national ambient air quality standards for all pollutants based on WHO's proposed interim target and gradually achieve the revised standards."
He said that Greenpeace India's Power The Pedal campaign is working with low-wage women labourers in Bengaluru and Delhi with the aim of building cycling communities that will act as agents of change. The first 500 bicycles are being delivered in the first phase.
Honamma, a 38-year-old garment factory laborer from the IT capital said that she feels proud she is part of the solution to Bengaluru’s pollution problems. "I am proud that since I am cycling I am not adding to the problem. But there are not enough facilities for cyclists. We don't have enough cycle tracks and are constantly exposed to a lot of pollution from other vehicles. So if we have a separate lane then it will be better. There are parking facilities for motorists, we need such facilities for cyclists as well. If we want to change then we have to ensure such facilities are provided."