Our government rarely ever looks at the air quality data it spawns. Data demands action. Feigning ignorance relieves such stress. Except that the Indian Judiciary does not allow easy escapes. The Union government was caught off guard in the recent Supreme Court hearing in the on going public interest litigation on air pollution in Delhi. It is the chief justice bench that looked carefully at the latest air quality data from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).
The CPCB release clearly vindicates Court and public action in Delhi. Air is cleaner since 1996 - the Court observed. But widespread and rapidly growing particulate pollution in other cities captivated Court's attention. The most polluted are not the big four metros -- Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata or Chennai, but other cities -- Ahmedabad, kanpur, Solapur, Lucknow, Hyderabad, Bangalore. This snuffs out metro mania!
In one clean sweep the chief justice bench has expanded the ambit of the air pollution case beyond Delhi - raising it to the national level. It has allowed two months to the Union government and the concerned state governments to draw up an action plan to lower particulate pollution in these cities. The Court has acted on its own warning. A year ago in its ruling of April 5, 2002, stunned by the countrywide air pollution levels the Court had cautioned, "If no immediate action is taken, then it may become necessary for some order being passed so as to bring relief to the residents of the city."
Unbelievable! Repeated strictures from the Court have simply failed to brow beat the system into action. Neither the Central government nor the state governments have cared to implement time bound action plans. A composite framework for national air quality planning does not even exist! As the government ignores its constitutional and statutory duty to protect environment and public health, the Court evokes the fundamental right to life. The government looks away. There is no willingness to find solutions to its poor governance.
Over the past few years the Right to Clean Air Campaign has worked to build an informed public opinion to push for good air quality governance. There is anger, conflict and some action in many parts of India today. We need to build on that to push for change. This is our new forum to raise concerns, share information, and work together to find solutions to one of the most critical public health crisis facing us. We will from now on capture the snapshots of action in India every month for you.
Air pollution is the fifth largest killer and seventh biggest illness burden in India as estimated by the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) report. The speed at which urban air pollution is growing across our cities is alarming. Severe particulate pollution and newer pollutants like nitrogen oxides, ozone and air toxics are worsening the public health challenge. Vehicles are a special challenge as these are the fastest growing sources of air pollution.