Striving for Clean Air: Air Pollution and Public Health in South Asia


    In News

    • Recently, the World bank (WB) released a report titled “Striving for Clean Air: Air Pollution and Public Health in South Asia”.

    Key Findings

    • India: 
      • India has six large airsheds, some of them shared with Pakistan, between which air pollutants move. 
      • Even if Delhi National Capital Territory were to fully implement all air pollution control measures by 2030 while other parts of South Asia continued to follow current policies, it wouldn’t keep pollution exposure below 35 µg/m3. 
    • South Asia: 
      • Currently over 60% of South Asians are exposed to an average 35 µg/m3 of PM2.5 annually. 
      • In some parts of the Indo-Gangetic Plain (IGP) it spiked to as much as 100 µg/m3 – nearly 20 times the upper limit of 5 µg/m3 recommended by the World Health Organisation.
      • The six major airsheds in South Asia where air quality in one affected the other were: 
        • West/Central IGP that included Punjab (Pakistan), Punjab (India), Haryana, part of Rajasthan, Chandigarh, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh.
        • Central/Eastern IGP: Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bangladesh; 
        • Middle India: Odisha/Chhattisgarh;
        • Middle India: Eastern Gujarat/Western Maharashtra;
        • Northern/Central Indus River Plain: Pakistan, part of Afghanistan; and
        • Southern Indus Plain and further west: South Pakistan, Western Afghanistan extending into Eastern Iran.
      • Persistently hazardous levels of air pollution have caused a major public health crisis in South Asia that demands urgent action.
      • Bhutan: 
        • Bhutan isn’t protected from the air pollution we see in the IGP, and Thimphu sees worse pollution than before. 
        • If there is particulate pollution in the mountains, they will come down when the glaciers melt, and then go into the oceans – hence no one in the region is spared, and we are seeing pollutants from elsewhere.
      • South Asia is home to 9 of the world’s 10 cities with the worst air pollution, which causes an estimated 2 million premature deaths across the region each year and incurs significant economic costs. 
    • Particulate Matter: 
      • The concentrations of fine particulate matter such as soot and small dust (PM 2.5) in some of the region’s most densely populated and poor areas are up to 20 times higher than what WHO considers healthy (5 µg/m?). 
    • Sources of air pollution:
      • Large industries, power plants and vehicles are dominant sources of air pollution around the world, but in South Asia, other sources make substantial additional contributions. 
      • These include combustion of solid fuels for cooking and heating, emissions from small industries such as brick kilns, burning of municipal and agricultural waste, and cremation
    • Wind direction and pollution: 
      • When the wind direction was predominantly northwest to southeast, 30% of the air pollution in Indian Punjab came from the Punjab Province in Pakistan
      • 30% of the air pollution in the largest cities of Bangladesh (Dhaka, Chittagong, and Khulna) originated in India. 
      • In some years, substantial pollution flowed in the other direction across borders.
    • Airshed approach: 
      • This is how the problem has been tackled in other regions, like ASEAN, Nordic regions, and across China. 
      • States need to stop blaming and go for a collaborative approach if they wish to reduce air pollution for their citizens.


    • Stunting and reduced cognitive development in children,
    • Respiratory infections and chronic and debilitating diseases. 
    • Rising healthcare costs, 
    • Lowering a country’s productive capacity.

    Way Ahead

    • While existing measures by the government can reduce particulate matter, significant reduction is possible only if the territories spanning the airsheds implement coordinated policies
    • A modelling approach over South Asia as a whole, multiple scenarios are possible and should be applied
    • Interdependence in air quality within airsheds in South Asia is necessary to be accounted for when weighing alternative pathways for pollution control.
    • The scientists of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and other South Asian countries must establish a dialogue on air pollution to tackle it with an ‘airshed approach’.
    • Curbing air pollution requires not only tackling its specific sources, but also close coordination across local and national jurisdictional boundaries. Regional cooperation can help implement cost-effective joint strategies that leverage the interdependent nature of air quality.

    Solution by World Bank: 3 Phase Roadmap 

    • The report analysed multiple scenarios to reduce air pollution with varying degrees of policy implementation and cooperation among countries. 
    • The most cost-effective one, which calls for full coordination between airsheds, would cut the average exposure of PM 2.5 in South Asia to 30 µg/m³ at a cost of $278 million (?2,400 crore) per µg/m? of reduced exposure, and save more than 7,50,000 lives annually.
    • Roadmap: 
      • Phase 1: Sets the condition for airshed wide coordination by expanding the monitoring of air pollution beyond the big cities, sharing data with the public, creating or strengthening credible scientific institutes that analyze airsheds, and taking a whole-of-government approach.
      • Phase 2: Abatement interventions are broadened beyond the traditional targets of power plants, large factories and transportation. During this phase major progress can be made in reducing air pollution from agriculture, solid waste management, cookstoves, brick kilns, and other small firms. At the same time, airshed-wide standards can be introduced.
      • Phase 3: Economic incentives are fine tuned to enable private-sector solutions, to address distributional impacts, and to exploit synergies with climate change policies. In this phase trading of emission permits can also be introduced to optimize abatement across jurisdictions and firms.

    National Clean Air Campaign (NCAP)

    • The Centre in 2019 launched a programme called the National Clean Air Campaign (NCAP) that aims to reduce air pollution in 131 of India’s most polluted cities. 
    • The target was initially to cut pollution by 20%-30% by 2024 over 2017 levels but has now been revised to cutting it by 40% by 2025-26.

    Source: TH