Seeing Through Smoke

Rural India’s overlooked crisis of outdoor air pollution

The National Green Tribunal’s ban on cropburning in much of north India is highly impractical for farmers, many of whom have no means or incentive to clear their harvested fields in any other way. SHAMMI MEHRA / AFP / GETTY IMAGES
01 May, 2017

In a village in Uttar Pradesh's Reusa block this January, I met Pushpa Devi, a young mother. As we spoke, she fed her tiny daughter milk from a spoon—the baby was too weak to breastfeed. Even at one month old, she looked to be under 2.5 kilograms, the limit below which newborns are considered to be low birthweight. Several factors contributed to the fragility of Pushpa Devi's daughter, and the air she was breathing was certainly one of them.

Every winter morning and evening, in thousands of villages across north India, people without adequate housing or warm clothing huddle around small fires to try and keep the chill at bay. I saw countless such fires in the week I spent in Reusa, as well as farmers burning sugarcane thrash to clear their fields after the harvest, and small factories burning sugarcane pulp to make gur. Closer to Lucknow, 90 kilometres to the south, coal-fired power plants and factories such as brick kilns emitted constant streams of smoke. These and other sources of air pollution leave rural north India under a thick layer of smog throughout winter.

According to India's National Ambient Air Quality Standards, the permissible outdoor concentration of particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, averaged over 24 hours, is 60 micrograms per cubic metre. These are particles so small they can enter deep into the lungs, and even into the bloodstream. Levels of outdoor air pollution in Reusa regularly hovered at two to four times this limit during my visit, and rose to around ten times the limit one night. Air this polluted can kill babies and old people, impede healthy development in children, and give everyone else respiratory infections.

There are no government pollution monitors in Reusa. I collected data on my own, in fields and public spaces, using a portable measuring device. In Lucknow, the nearest place where the government collects air-quality data, outdoor pollution levels over the same week were often lower than those I recorded in Reusa. The popular refrain "gaon ki hawa, sheher ki dawa," equating village air to a city's medicine, appeared far from true.

Over the years, the Indian government and international development agencies have spent many millions of dollars trying to reduce indoor air pollution in rural India. This menace is mostly attributable to chulhas—traditional cookstoves fuelled by dung, wood or crop residue. But the problem of outdoor air pollution in rural India is rarely acknowledged, even though chulhas contribute to it too when the smoke they produce drifts outdoors.

Until now, concern and action regarding outdoor air pollution in India have focussed on Delhi and other large urban centres. However, 30 percent of Indians live in rural Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which satellite images show falling under a cloud of dirty air every winter. As Kirk Smith, a professor of global environmental health at the University of California in Berkeley, wrote in a report to the United Nations in 2006, "There is a tendency to think of health-damaging air pollution as an urban phenomenon, but globally the total health burden from air pollution falls predominantly on rural populations. … Emissions inventories done as part of climate and acid precipitation programs and satellite photos show clearly that rural areas can contribute substantially to total emissions."

The World Health Organisation has estimated that outdoor air pollution, both urban and rural, led to the premature deaths of three million people across the world in 2012. This represents a threefold increase from 2005 estimates, which is partly due to greater recognition that rural populations are also exposed to outdoor pollution. In India, over 620,000 premature deaths were attributable to outdoor air pollution in urban and rural areas in 2012, according to the WHO’s figures.

The task of monitoring and preventing air pollution in India goes to the Central Pollution Control Board, or CPCB, under the ministry of the environment and forests. In 2003, the CPCB issued its Guidelines for Ambient Air Quality Monitoring, which distinguished between types of pollution affecting urban and rural areas. For rural areas, the document mentioned indoor air pollution caused by burning solid fuels such as dung and wood, but made no mention of outdoor pollution or its sources. The CPCB has set up more than 600 air-quality monitoring stations in over 260 cities and towns, but not a single one in a rural area.

In the state capital, I visited the regional officer overseeing Lucknow district for the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board. “There aren’t any stations in rural India because there aren’t any polluting activities there,” he told me. When I told him what I saw in Reusa, he admitted that such activities occur outside cities, but justified his agency’s urban focus by saying that they “only happen for a short period of time” annually, while “cities have pollution 365 days a year.”

It is probably true that outdoor air quality in rural areas is better in summer than in winter, just as it is in cities. However, villagers burn fires for warmth for four to five months of the year, and emissions from chulhas and rural industries occur year-round. Regardless of how good rural air may be in the summer, the certainty that it is highly polluted for almost half the year merits notice and investigation.

State pollution control boards, among their other functions, must inspect factories and power plants to ensure compliance with emissions standards. But enforcement is lax. For instance, a 2011–2012 survey of 47 coal plants by the Centre for Science and Environment, a research and advocacy organisation, found that roughly two-thirds of them, in both urban and rural areas across 16 Indian states, routinely violated emissions norms.

Other measures that could improve rural outdoor air quality are also falling short. In December 2015, the National Green Tribunal, or NGT, banned crop-burning in the National Capital Territory, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. However, the state environmental secretaries, state pollution control boards and district magistrates in these territories are not enforcing the ruling effectively. Crucially, the ban is highly impractical for farmers, many of whom have no means or incentive to clear their fields in any other way. The government offers subsidies for machines that help farmers plant new crops without having to remove the dry stalks from the previous harvest, but these are still too expensive for most.

At present, India has relatively few biomass-based power plants, which use crop residue to generate electricity and can create a market for what is now largely a waste product. The NGT and some environmental activists have called for the construction of more such power plants, but there are barriers in the way: the tariffs for biomass-based power set by some state governments are not attractive enough to encourage investment, and there are insufficient mechanisms to ensure sustained supplies of biomass at reasonable prices.

There is some cause for optimism, even if limited, in the efforts to address pollution from chulhas. One major step in this campaign came in mid 2016, when the central government launched the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, a scheme to subsidise LPG for poor households. So far, the government claims to have set up almost 20 million new LPG connections under this programme, which aims to reach 50 million households in all.

The scheme is not without its hiccups, though. In Reusa, many of the households I visited had received a cylinder and stove through the Ujjwala Yojana, but did not use LPG exclusively. One family used an LPG stove to make chai for me while simultaneously cooking rice on a chulha. A commonly held belief across north India is that food cooked on a chulha is healthier than that cooked on an LPG stove. To make matters worse, refilling an LPG cylinder costs almost half the average monthly per-capita expenditure in rural India, and rural households often go through a cylinder each month. (By way of offsetting the initial subsidy for setting up new connections, beneficiary households pay full rates for roughly the first nine of their refills—the calculation can change with shifts in subsidy rates—and only then qualify for subsidised refills.) Moreover, the scheme only aims to reach half of the at least 100 million households that did not use LPG before it started. Given that many households will not receive LPG through the Ujjwala Yojana, and many beneficiaries continue to use chulhas, improvements in pollution exposure and health as a result of the scheme may be much smaller than expected.

The rising awareness of outdoor air pollution in rural areas in forums such as the UN is in part the result of recent advances in computer modelling and satellite technology, which have allowed experts to estimate air quality using satellite data. These estimates cannot capture the same level of detail that on-the-ground monitors do, but they are indicative of the scale and severity of the problem. Applying this approach to India reveals a bleak reality: outdoor air quality throughout the Indo-Gangetic plain, in both urban and rural areas, is estimated to be the worst in the country, and consistently bad enough to make people sick. In 2015, the most recent year for which data are available, the estimated average outdoor pollution in much of this region was above the Indian government standard.

A first step in seriously addressing rural outdoor air pollution would be for the CPCB to start monitoring it on the ground. Government-collected data will be important both for understanding variations in air quality over time and space, and for convincing relevant agencies of the problem’s gravity. (Policies on industrial pollution, crop burning and cooking fuel all fall under different parts of the government, including the ministries of the environment, agriculture, renewable energy, and petroleum and natural gas.) In 2015, the ministry of health and family welfare officially recognised the issue in a report that emphasised the importance of addressing pollution and health in an integrated manner in both urban and rural areas. Other organs of the government should follow suit.

Unfortunately, the Indian government seems to be taking large steps backwards on air-pollution policy even as it takes small steps forward. Several times over the past year, Anil Dave, the minister for the environment, has questioned estimates of deaths attributable to air pollution in India, such as those published by the WHO. In February, Dave told the Rajya Sabha that “there are no conclusive data available in the country to establish direct correlationship of death exclusively with air pollution.” Monitoring of outdoor air pollution in rural areas may be a long way off if the head of the ministry responsible for it still questions the health effects of pollution exposure. While the government dilly-dallies, millions of Indians such as Pushpa Devi’s daughter struggle for breath.