BLOG: Why strengthening our public transport is the need of the hour

It is no news that the air quality we breathe is highly polluted. The ambient as well as household air quality is above the alarming level thus triggering spate of diseases in the world.
The State of Global Air 2018 was released recently. The report covers the entire globe and maps the air quality for the countries. It does not just provide valid data for ambient air quality but also for the household air pollution mainly from the burn of solid fuels for cooking, heating and so on.

It is an established fact that air pollution can affect people’s health. Asthma, breathing problems and even cardio vascular diseases are linked to the quality of air.
The Global Burden of Disease (GBD) project of the Institute of Health Metrics (IHME) published a report saying that the ambient air pollution has become one of the most important risk factors contributing to deaths and disability in human beings.

The ambient air pollution (particulate matter less than or equal to 2.5 micrometres in diameter – PM 2.5) has now ranked as the 6th highest risk factor for early deaths in the world.

The GBD initiative has also documented that millions of people around the world are exposed to air pollution in their homes arising from the use of solid fuels (e.g. coal, wood and dung) for cooking and heating. The household exposure to air pollution has a substantial impact on people’s lives. The household pollution is now ranked as the 8th highest risk factor for early deaths with 2.6 million attributable deaths in 2016. Ambient and household air pollution combined is attributing to deaths in a large number worldwide. However, the developing and poor countries face greater challenges.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has set the air quality guidelines for annual average PM 2.5 concentration. It is 10 μg/m3 based on evidence of health effects of long-term exposure to PM2.5 but acknowledged that it could not rule out health effects below that level. However, this is considered to be an ambitious goal and hence an interim target of lower concentrations has been set for different regions of the world. The WHO suggested three interim targets set at progressively lower concentrations: 35 μg/m3, 25 μg/m3, and 15 μg/m3. However, based on the data, 95 % of the world’s population exceeds the WHO pollution guidelines for PM 2.5. Nearly 58 % of the population lived in the area which is more than even the interim target.
The highest concentration of above 204 μg/m3 population-weighted annual av¬erage PM2.5 is in North Africa and Egypt owing to the windblown mineral dust.
In the last six years, the air quality has further deteriorated in the globe. The PM 2.5 concentrations have increased by 18 %. The trends in this increase are also quite interesting in the 10 most highly populated countries in the world. India, Bangladesh, Pa¬kistan, and China have all experienced both high concentrations of population and increasing trends in PM2.5 exposure, but there are noteworthy distinctions. As China experienced substantial increases in population-weighted exposures before 2010 — reflecting in part the dramatic scale of economic development in recent decades — since then the exposures have stabilised and even started to decline, according to the GBD report. This is a substantial departure from the other South Asian countries who still have high concentration and pollution levels.

Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India, on the other hand, have experienced the steepest increases in air pollution levels since 2010 and now present the highest sustained PM2.5 concentrations among the countries.

The estimated combined toll from all forms of air pollution (PM2.5, ozone, and household) is substantial. On a global basis, total air pollution was responsible for 6.1 million deaths (11.2% of the global total). Of the number of global deaths in specific disease categories, 22.6% of ischemic heart disease deaths, 21.4% of stroke deaths, 23.5% of lung cancer deaths, 45.1% of deaths from acute LRIs, and 44.7% of COPD deaths were attributed to air pollution in 2016.

The data from the GBD is startling. One amongst the most vulnerable regions in the world is South Asia. India tops with the largest number of polluted cities in the first 20 list. With such records, interventions on ambient and household air quality has to be of utmost priority. However, In India, only the ambient air quality has been dealt with in the National clean air programme (NCAP). To improve the household air is still a distant dream.

The NCAP has a goal of achieving ambient air quality standards at all locations in the country in a stipulated time. Three objectives have been set: to augment and evolve proficient ambient air quality monitoring network across the country, to have effective dissemination of the data to the public and timely measures for prevention and mitigation of air pollution through public participation, to have feasible management plan for prevention, control and abatement of air pollution.

The approach to achieve the objectives is collaborative, multi scale and cross sectoral between ministries, state governments and local bodies. The big question arises who will eventually own the plan to clean up the air in their cities. For the air pollution plan in the city, a serious concern is who would be the effective implementer. Strengthening the public transport is can be helpful, and is the need of the hour. Hence the approach must be to change the present system of transport and ensure that public transport is improved. The public transport with better buses (less polluting), metro rail, bicycle movement and pedestrianisation must be given an impetus. At the same time, individual car owners, their movement must be coerced to ensure that the people dissuade from using their private cars. In addition, the metro fare should be subsidized to ensure that people travel in them. We must take cue from Germany where public transport is going to be free to check pollution levels.

It is high time we ensure that the air is made safe to breathe. The citizens must have a right to good ambient air quality, and should not be forced to buy air purifiers. 

Tikender Panwar is the former Deputy Mayor of Shimla.

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