Role of Science, Public Health and Governance in Tackling Air Pollution
Report of first webinar
ESG Webinar Series on Tackling Air Pollution
8th March, 2023
Video recording on
Download pdf version here.
Why this Webinar Series:
Bengaluru is one of the most polluted cities in India. The air quality in the city has deteriorated drastically over the years due to poor public transport facilities, widespread waste burning, massive construction activities in and around the metropolis, and an alarming increase in the number of private transport vehicles. The increasing pollution and deteriorating air quality has immediate consequences on public health: in the form of increased incidences of respiratory allergies and infections, chronic complex respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases, and various other health complications. What is shocking is that such health problems which were earlier observed mostly in older people or those exposed to highly polluted environments are increasingly manifesting in the youth, even children.
The Karnataka State Pollution Control Board has formulated the Revised Action Plan for Control of Air Pollution in Bengaluru City, a 44-point agenda that casts on various government agencies the responsibility of instituting effective response measures to tackle air pollution. However, the Action Plan fails comprehensively misses to include health needs of the poor and working class as a priority, particularly given that they are the most vulnerable to suffer impacts of air pollution, and who also constitute about half of the 14 million metropolitan population.
All this gives rise to several questions about the nature, effects and solutions to the air pollution crisis. What steps are needed to tackle air pollution, at a personal level, at the community level and at larger scales.
Introduction to Webinar on the Role of Science, Public Health and Governance in Tackling Air Pollution
Adverse impacts of air pollution are largely borne by poor and marginalised communities who live in areas with high AQI. Street vendors, solid waste workers, domestic help, auto rickshaw drivers, industrial workers and a host of others from the working classes, who are also economically weaker, are subjected to very high levels of air pollution, and on a daily basis. They often live in highly polluted areas, lack environmentally safe and secure homes, often lack 24×7 electricity, they have to walk long distances to work and also engage in jobs with very high exposures to pollution, and work with little or no protective gear.
As a consequence, the burden of disease on them is substantial. With weak access to health care or insurance, health expenditures are high which bears down on the weak incomes of the families. This leaves them in a vicious cycle of debt and poverty.
Several questions arise.
About how the action points in Revised Action Plan for Control of Air Pollution in Bengaluru City were evolved, and by consulting who?
How have funds been allocated, and are being used? Is implementation of these action points being monitored, and are reports available in the public domain?
What are the health impacts of serious air pollution on the general population and vulnerable sections?
What steps are taken to address concerns of the poor and the marginalised?
Are available legal provisions to penalise major polluters being used to protect wider populations from air pollution?
What forms of democratic appraisal are in place to ensure governance responses to mitigate and manage air pollution at the city scale level are transparent and accountable?
Are public health centres, and the overall medical personnel, trained and equipped to deal with impacts of air pollution of such a large population?
What are the steps taken to proactively address adverse impacts of air pollution on women, children and elders?
Who does one complain to when there is a high AQI in a particular area?
What does one do when a waste pile is set on fire in the neighbourhood?
These and more questions which often cross our minds, or come to us when we suffer from air pollution, was interrogated by an interdisciplinary panel in a webinar, the first in a series on air pollution that Environment Support Group is organising in commemoration of 25 years of service to public causes and advancing environmental and social justice.
In the first webinar of a four part Webinar Series on Tackling Air Pollution, ESG invited an interdisciplinary panel of experts and key decision makers to discuss such issues and concerns, causing and arising out of air pollution, and particularly to focus on the role of science, public health and governance in tackling air pollution.
Air Pollution Amidst Structural Socio-economic Disparities
Dr. Julian Marshall, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at University of Washington, Seattle, presented his research on how non-white populations are more susceptible to air pollution in American cities. Such cities, he explained, are so laid out that they are essentially a reflection of prevailing structural disparities, that have come from the past, and which disparities now translate into risks and benefits depending on the nature of environments and living conditions in different parts of the city. While air pollution should be an issue affecting everyone equally, it is far from true in the social contexts of cities globally, he said. This is because the exposure to pollutants is deeply disproportionate considering the class and caste demographic divisions rooted in urban spaces.
Prof. Marshall also talked of the disparity in pollutant exposure among various income groups. However, the disparity between races is more than between income groups, so much so that a low-income white household breathes much better air than a high-income black household.
Such differences are observed in terms of pollutant generation activities as well with trends of races/ethnicities generating pollutants inversely impacted by their activities. He reiterated how unequal exposures are systemic and constitute an economic phenomenon, and that it has been highlighted by the affected communities in the past and is not a recent academic observation.
Contextualised in Indian cities, people living in gated societies are exposed to less polluted air than the daily wage labourers working in construction areas, or those on roads. Similarly, women and children are more vulnerable as they spend considerably larger proportions of their day inside their houses and on the roadsides, as compared to men. Hence, the administration must formulate policies that address such disparities.
Tackling Air Pollution as a Public Health Crisis
Dr. Kashinath Dixit, a practising Physician and Endocrinologist at Manchester University Hospital, spoke of the significant and evident toxic effect of air pollutants on public health. He reported an unusual increase in health problems caused by air pollution in urban spaces. Apart from respiratory and cardiovascular issues, he observed that the continued exposure to extremely polluted air results in hormonal imbalances, arterial constrictions, and even the development of severe chronic conditions like PCOS and thyroid issues in premenstrual women. According to Dr. Dixit, a major obstacle of air pollution is its invisibility which makes the response challenging.
In adults, extensive research showed that air pollution is the biggest cause for atypical cases of early onset diabetes, cardiovascular issues, cancer and other life-threatening conditions. Dr. Dixit highlighted that the pollution in the urban spaces is primarily of two types – indoor and outdoor, and that contrary to popular belief, a major portion of air pollution deaths occurs due to indoor household pollution. Outdoor pollution is caused by transport vehicles, dust and industrial discharge, and the indoor pollution is due to fuel consumption and dust generating activities.
Dr. Dixit explained how air pollution affects people of all age groups and through different stages of their life. While particles with >PM10 are expelled through coughing, the smaller particles enter our blood through our respiratory system causing issues like thickening of blood and affecting our blood vessels. This in turn causes a complex change in the brain leading to mental health issues, developmental disorders, dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases. In fact, a study done in China reflects the effects on human fertility due to SO2 exposure, alongside other reproductive problems.
Dr. Dixit informed that a large group of indoor pollutants include mould, microbial pathogens, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from perfumes, cleaning products, animal hair dust, tobacco smoke, paint, varnishes etc, which can be countered by introducing plants and air purifiers in domestic spaces. However, the inequality in terms of access to such solutions makes it difficult to implement WHO’s suggestions to deal with air pollution in all spaces.
Karnataka Government’s Initiatives to Tackle Air Pollution
Jawaid Akhtar, IAS, Additional Chief Secretary, Department of Forests, Ecology and Environment of the Government of Karnataka, acknowledged that the greatest challenge faced by humanity currently is maintaining equilibrium between human needs and protecting nature. Apart from education and awareness of personal lifestyle changes, key stakeholder departments have to come together and implement programmes to coordinate a collective response against air pollution, he said. He went on to elaborate the various measures being taken by the Karnataka Government to tackle air pollution which include participating in monitoring per national air quality standards and increasing public awareness and mass education programmes.
Mr. Akhtar shared that the government has already announced its intention to improve AQ in over 100 cities. In the meantime, the state government is taking initiatives such as alteration of vehicular emission norms, purchase of electric buses and enforcement of stringent regulations on coal based thermal power plants. To tackle pollution from dust and burning waste, the state notified seven waste management rules covering non-biodegradable waste under EP Act, set up waste process plants, banned garbage burning and implemented extended producer responsibility for plastic and e-waste management. He concluded by stating that AQ monitoring stations are being set up, public grievance redressal systems are being developed and emergency response systems are being put in place.
Challenges in Monitoring Air Quality
Dr. Pratima Singh, Senior Research Scientist at CSTEP, offered insights into the administrative interventions towards tackling air pollution in Bangalore. She said that while Bengaluru is not the most polluted city, its air quality is still not acceptable as per Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) standards. However, with the right interventions, the city has potential to be one of the cleanest. She went on to highlight some of the interventions aimed at tackling pollution.
Under the National Clean Air Programme, Bengaluru currently has 32 AQ monitors, 10 additional continuous pollution monitoring reference grade instruments and more are expected. The city also has a Clean Air Action Plan which was formulated after an extensive consultation with all departments to come up with realistic strategies on tackling air pollution. However, lack of coordination between the departments has been a challenge for implementation of the plan. Funds have also been allocated to oversee a shift in public transportation towards cleaner fuels and promotion of electric vehicles.
Dr. Pratima Singh surmises that in spite of such initiatives, regulatory authorities need to be pushed for implementation. She highlighted the need to educate departments on the science of air pollution and its mitigation, the need to guide the administration on fund allocation, and also the need to employ department accountability to increase compliance and coordination. She even suggested an environment cell within departments, consisting of officials responsible to act as a nodal body, to coordinate and implement initiatives at the grassroot level.
Governance Responses to Tackling Air Pollution
India has suffered the most from air pollution, both because of catastrophic incidents and deteriorating ambient air quality, Leo Saldanha, Coordinator and Trustee of ESG said. Referring to the Bhopal Gas incident as a crime, and not a tragedy, as thousands died and hundreds of thousands more suffered due to gross negligence of Union Carbide and Pollution Control authorities, who did not act despite systemic warnings, is indicative of the nature of the systemic problem, he shared. One could even say, he said, that the lack of action from regulatory authorities to ensure the factory would adhere strictly to norms, coupled with Union Carbide’s (now owned by Dow Chemicals) preference of profit over people, is the real cause of this disaster. The 1985 Oleum gas leak due to the Shriram Group of Industries in Delhi moved the Supreme Court to act substantially by invoking absolute liability for such incidents, a much higher pedestal as opposed to strict liability which is typically used to tackle air pollution cases.
Leo Saldanha explained how dust that Pourakarmikas (city sanitary workers) are exposed to is not just solid particulate matter but contains dangerous PM10 and PM2.5 particles. Yet they are not provided any protection against this continuous serious pollution. He shared India lags behind its neighbours and Southeast Asian countries in addressing the importance of protecting workers who are engaged in hazardous operations, and highlighted how in cities across Vietnam far greater protection is accorded to workers than cities like Bangalore in India: “We need to think beyond class and caste and formulate responses to protect especially vulnerable communities” said Saldanha.
He also shared alarming statistics of serious consequences in Mavallipura, a village on the outskirts of Bangalore, where the city’s waste is dumped, and this has already resulted in the deaths of dozens. In conclusion, he questioned the preparedness of authorities to tackle this serious issue and urged for kind of response readiness that is borne out of deep humanism, not merely justification of compliance with rules and regulations.
Bhargavi Rao, Senior Fellow and Trustee of ESG, moderated the session. Building a conversation, she highlighted how a study by Julian, covered by New York Times, exposed disparities in exposure to pollutants between high and low income families in Delhi. She invited Julian to reflect on his work in India and to discuss where we stand in terms of our technical capacities to address air pollution. Responding Prof. Marshall said that one of the recent technologies to tackle air pollution is mobile monitoring which gives us a better idea of spatial concentration and variability, but cheaper alternatives need to be considered for the Indian circumstances.
A participant was concerned about the uncritical promotion of electric vehicles, and its implications to air quality. To which Leo Saldanha shared how construction of flyovers is being promoted as a method of increasing mobility, even though it is well known this results in increased pollution. The question to focus on, he said, is if EV’s replacing diesel/petrol vehicles is any better, when taking into consideration the embedded carbon in all of the transport infrastructure that is built. Rather, he argued, it is far more sensible to advance public transport as the primary transport method, and “to ensure anyone can cycle or walk safely and securely from anywhere to anywhere else’. In support of this solution, Dr. Pratima suggested that the lack of end-to-end connectivity demotivates people from using public transport modes of travel as their default choice of commute.
On taking measures to protect ourselves at an individual level, Dr. Dixit suggested that spreading awareness, even resorting to covering faces with even a basic cloth as a mask and avoiding construction sites and waste dumps would ideally help. Apart from this, he said that people need to collectively oppose the sources that generate air pollution and constantly take steps to minimise pollutants in the living and working spaces.
Concluding the webinar, Bhargavi invited the audience to participate in the subsequent webinars as part of the series, which would focus on other dimensions of the problem and how we can collectively work to resolve the crises.
Dr. Pratima Singh is a Senior Research Scientist and leads the Air Pollution domain at CSTEP. She holds a PhD in Natural Resources (Energy and Environment) from TERI University, New Delhi. She completed her M.Sc. (Tech) in Geotechnology from Maharaja Sayajirao University (Vadodara), and B.Sc. in Chemistry from South Gujarat University. She previously worked as a Resource Scientist with Compusense Automation (Ahmedabad) and as Project Manager with Gujarat Council of Science and Technology (GUJCOST). She received the Senior Research Fellowship from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) for her doctoral research and is an honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, U.K. Her research areas include air pollution studies, source apportionment, emission inventory, measurement and monitoring of air pollution sources, renewable energy (solar PV), sustainable development policies, and the energy-water-carbon nexus of water and wastewater infrastructure.
Prof. Julian Marshall’s research is in exposure assessment: understanding how much pollution people breathe, and how to reduce those exposures. His specific areas of focus are (1) Air pollution impacts of urban form; (2) Air pollution and health impacts of transportation energy consumption, including alternative fuels (biofuels, electric vehicles) and active travel (walking, biking); (3) In situ measurement of fine particles in developing countries.
Two core themes underlying those areas are modelling and measuring spatiotemporal variability in pollution concentrations; and environmental justice: understanding who is more exposed or less exposed to air pollution, how exposures correlate with attributes such as race or income, and how changes in emissions might shift existing exposure gaps. Julian has a Ph.D., Energy & Resources (2005), a M.S., Energy & Resources (2002) from UC Berkeley, and a B.S.E., Chemical Engineering (1996) from Princeton University.
Dr. Kashinath Dixit is from Bangalore. Following his MBBS in Bellary Medical College, he moved to the UK where he now works as Endocrinologist, Andrologist and specialises in Lifestyle Medicines. He pursued his postgraduate training in Internal Medicine in the UK following which he also had super speciality training in Endocrinology. He further specialised in Clinical Andrology from European Academy of Andrology and Gynaecological Endocrinology from International School of Gynaecological Endocrinology. He has published his research in several peer reviewed journals and presented in various International scientific meetings. His special interest is Public Health aspects of Endocrinology. He currently works as a Consultant at Manchester University Hospital.
Jawaid Akhtar, IAS, is the Additional Chief Secretary of the Forest, Ecology and Environment Department in the Government of Karnataka and prior to which he was heading the health department of the state and ably guided the state’s response to covid pandemic. He has worked in various departments of the Karnataka Government since he joined as a IAS in 1989, of which the recent positions he held are Additional Chief Secretary to Government for
the Health & Family Welfare Department, Managing Director of Karnataka Power Transmission Corporation Limited, Chairman of the Coffee Board, Resident Commissioner of Karnataka Bhavan and Secretary to Government for the Urban Development Department.
Leo F. Saldanha is full-time Coordinator and also Trustee of ESG. He has gained wide-ranging experience in the areas of Environmental Law and Policy, Decentralisation, Urban Planning and a variety of Human Rights and Development related issues, working across many sectors for over a decade. He is a keen campaigner on critical environmental and social justice issues and has guided several campaigns demanding evolution of progressive laws and effective action.
Bhargavi S. Rao graduated in Environmental Science and is a Botanist with an M’Phil degree in Aerobiology from Bangalore University. She also has a post graduate diploma in Journalism. Her interest in Environmental and Social justice issues brought her to Environment Support Group (ESG), where she has led a wide variety of research and educational projects and campaign initiatives. She coordinated educational and training programmes at ESG with a focus on enhancing awareness and critical engagement in social and environmental justice issues.
This report was prepared by Amrita M. Menon of ESG and Akshita Raghaw who interned with the organisation.
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