Rising air pollution shows urgent need for localized climate action in the Northeast
Air pollution in northeastern cities of India, including Guwahati, has reached alarming levels. Increased monitoring and scientific research is needed
Considering the dense forest cover of India's northeast and that it harbours the last remnants of our country’s rainforests - the popular perception of the northeast being a pollution-free serene region of our country has turned out to be a fallacious myth today. In March this year, Guwahati, the largest metropolis in India’s northeast region, found itself in the global list of 100 most polluted cities, as well as in the list of 10 most polluted cities in Asia, according to data from the World Air Quality Index. While air quality in the northeast has been steadily deteriorating, contrary to the perception of its pristine blue skies, the issue has unfortunately failed to draw the attention it requires.
Although conversations on ‘air pollution’ and ‘air quality’ have been gaining momentum in recent years, these have predominantly focused on Delhi and neighbouring areas that are too episodic and fizzle after winter months. Researchers, however, have been cautioning us that air pollution is not just an urban problem, it is neither a Delhi-NCR-centric issue nor a winter phenomenon, but a national problem persisting throughout the year.
Contrary to public perception, research from the Centre for Science and Environment corroborates the expanding grasp of toxic air with northeastern cities like Guwahati, Byrnihat, Dimapur, Kohima, and Agartala recording concerning levels of air pollution, to the extent that Guwahati has recorded air quality levels equal to those in Delhi-NCR, and even more severe at times. Arguably, the limited air quality data available underestimates the scale of the problem confronting the northeastern states and inhibits proper assessment of risk. However, even the limited data available to us points to mounting vulnerability and risk.
On examining data from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) for the first quarter of this year itself, it is apparent that for a significant number of days, recorded air quality in Guwahati has been worse than in Delhi and Mumbai, with the Air Quality Index (AQI) being recorded above 300 (i.e very poor). This data is primarily based on monitoring of PM 2.5, the prominent pollutant which is a fine particulate matter that poses serious health risks when present in the atmosphere, and its sources can be diverse, including emissions from vehicles, industrial processes, and biomass burning. The city experienced a substantial number of days categorized as 'poor' and 'very poor' in terms of AQI.
Guwahati’s AQI in the first quarter of 2022
(Prominent pollutant PM 2.5)
Number of days in ‘poor’ category (AQI 200+)
Number of days in ‘very poor’ category (AQI 300+)
Number of days Guwahati AQI was worse than Delhi
14 out of 31 days
11 out of 31 days
10 out of 31 days
12 out of 28 days
10 out of 28 days
4 out of 28 days
11 out of 31 days
10 out of 31 days
10 out of 31 days
10 out of 30 days
9 out of 30 days
Source: CPCB Data
These figures underscore the frequency of unhealthy air conditions prevailing in the city during this period. A particular concern highlighted by the analysis is that Guwahati's AQI was worse than Delhi's AQI on multiple days each month. Delhi is notoriously known for its polluted air, and the fact that Guwahati on several occasions had worse air quality than the capital city reveals the severity of the air pollution challenge. Over the same period, experts have noted an increase in severe lung diseases, acute and chronic bronchitis, asthma, and other respiratory problems among the residents of the city.
Moreover, as per IQAir’s ‘World Air Quality Report 2022’ which globally ranks most polluted cities based on PM 2.5 concentration as per WHO guidelines, Guwahati ranked 95th. It is important to caveat the variations in national (CPCB) and international (WHO) AQI standards, India’s annual concentration standards for pollutants continue to be 40 micrograms per cubic metres (ug/m3) for PM 2.5, a figure eight times higher than WHO’s standards of 5ug/m3 for particulate matters. While this points to the need to revise our norms and narrow the gap between the two standards, it is telling that Guwahati (among other northeastern cities) fails to meet neither.
Source: World Air Quality Report 2022
Presently, seven cities from three northeastern states, namely, Dimapur (Nagaland), Byrnihat (Meghalaya), Guwahati, Nagaon, Nalbari, Sibsagar, Silchar (Assam), find a place in the list of 131 non-attainment cities under the National Clean Air Program (NCAP). A Union government program launched in 2019, NCAP aims to improve air quality in the 131 cities identified as most polluted across the country. However, these northeastern cities need further thrust under NCAP to ensure robust assessment frameworks and implement specific and contextual action plans suited to local needs. Given India’s geographical diversity, city micro action plans mandated under NCAP must be tailored to unique and localized concerns, bringing on board regional inputs rather than a cookie-cutter model which is the trend.
One such localized concern, for example, is the high level of black carbon emissions in Guwahati, which researchers estimate may be one the highest recorded levels in the world. A study by researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology-Guwahati (IITG), showed that exposure to black carbon (BC) pollution in Guwahati, especially in winter months, might cause health risks equivalent to passively smoking 25 cigarettes every day. Studies show that when inhaled, black carbon is deposited in the lungs and can cause acute health problems including premature deaths. Preliminary research has also drawn links between black carbon emissions and erratic rainfall patterns, demonstrating the connection between air pollution and climate change, which can have alarming effects on an already climate and flood-vulnerable state like Assam.
All this points towards the need to reset our approach to policy-making and implementation, and advocate for effective and decentralized governance that will subsequently take everyone along. There is a need to bolster monitoring resources, invest and facilitate a greater deal of scientific research, build the capacity of administrators to effectively mitigate local sources, encourage entrepreneurs to innovate local solutions, and empower civil society with the right information to enable them to be active stakeholders in driving change. Delhi-NCR and some northern states have long dominated the discourse on air pollution - but it is time to look beyond, lest we risk further sidelining an air pollution and public health crisis brewing in other regions. It’s time policymakers look East, towards localizing action plans for the right to breathe cleaner air for all.
Pradyut Bordoloi is a Lok Sabha member of Parliament from Nowgong, Assam and member of the parliamentary group for clean air. The views expressed are personal.