Tackling the Urban Pollution

Prelims level : Environment Mains level : GS-III Environment & Biodiversity | Conservation, Environmental Pollution & Degradation, Eia
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Why in News?

  • More than 1,10,000 infants are likely to have been killed by air pollution in India in 2019, almost immediately after being born while long-term exposure to outdoor and household air pollution was estimated to be responsible for about 1.67 million annual deaths amongst the adult population in the country.

What is pollution?

  • Pollution is the introduction of harmful materials into the environment. These harmful materials are called pollutants. Pollutants can be natural, such as volcanic ash. They can also be created by human activity, such as trash or runoff produced by factories. Pollutants damage the quality of air, water, and land.

Menace of air pollution in urban areas:

  • Demands for air purifiers: Demand for air purifiers has boomed. Recently, in Delhi, pollution-related curbs were lifted and schools opened, despite air quality continuing to be in the “very poor” category.
  • Health related problems: For the majority of urban north Indians who can’t afford air purifiers, life continues amidst dust, cough and breathlessness.
  • Children are most affected: Our children in urban localities are growing up with stunted lungs, amidst poverty.
  • High percentage of respiratory problems: Eighty per cent of all families in Delhi are noted to be suffering respiratory ailments due to severe pollution.

How we can reduce the air pollution?

  • Expand green cover across urban areas to reduce dust pollution: Ahmedabad’s municipal corporation, for instance, has experimented with urban forests, with the city’s 43rd urban forest inaugurated in June 2021 over 20,000 trees have been in 7,625 sq. metres. Chandigarh has about 1,800 parks. Close to 46 per cent of the city was classified as a green area in 2019.
  • Use of Miyawaki technique: Civil society could also help in Chennai, the NGO Thuvakkam, with a volunteer force of 1,800, has been able to grow 25 Miyawaki forests, raising over 65,000 trees. Such plantations are now being replicated in other cities including Tuticorin, Vellore and Kanchipuram.
  • Push for Airshed management: With a focus on understanding meteorological, seasonal and geographic patterns for air quality across a large region. In the US, the passage of the Air Quality Act (1967) saw the state of California being divided into 35 districts which had similar geographic and meteorological conditions and pollution was regulated at the state level. This approach was successful in reducing emissions by 98 per cent from 2010 to 2019.
  • Heavy penalty on polluting cars: Inspiration can also be taken from London’s air pollution revolution an Ultra-Low Emission zone has been established in Central London, with hefty daily fees on cars that emit more than 75g/km of pollution.

Water pollution in Indian cities:

  • Untreated water into freshwater bodies: 72 per cent of urban sewage is untreated in India’s urban freshwater bodies. The Central Pollution Control Board reckons that more than 50 per cent of 351 river stretches (on 323 rivers) are polluted. Over 4,000 septic trucks (with each truck having 5,000 litres of human waste) dispose of their waste in the Ganga every day. In Delhi, about 941 MLPD of raw sewage finds its way to the river, killing off fish and preventing rituals on the banks.
  • Riverine Pollution: Riverine pollution causes due to raw sewage overflowing from sewage treatment plants, untreated waste from unauthorized colonies, industrial effluents, sewer water from authorized colonies and inter-state pollution.
  • Water scarcity: More than 40 per cent of Indians are expected to face water scarcity by 2050 and close to 35 million will face annual coastal flooding with sea level rise.
  • Lack of planning: Apathy prevails as of May 2021, only 16 Indian cities had disclosed their plans to tackle climate change to international institutions, with only eight having actual sustainability-related targets in their urban master plans. Only 43 per cent of all Indian cities surveyed actually sought to address climate change adaption as a topic in their master plans, while only five had a GHG emission reduction target.

Do you know this harsh reality?

  • In India, nearly 7 lakh premature deaths are attributed to water pollution. Globally, 1.5 million children under five years die each year as a result of water-related diseases.

How to fight water pollution?

  • Improving sewage treatment plant capacity: ensuring linkages with the drainage network. Mangalore’s City Corporation (MCC) has wastewater treatment plants with end-user linkages. The MCC offered to supply treated water to such industrial end-users in the city’s special economic zone if the latter agreed to fund about 70 per cent of the operations and maintenance cost of the pumps and the sewage treatment plant.
  • Developing a sanitation network: The problem of untreated waste and sewer water from unauthorized colonies can be solved by investing in a sewerage network. Consider the example of Alandur, a small suburb of Chennai in 2000, it had no underground sewage lines, with most houses dependent on septic tanks. In the late 1990s, the local municipality in partnership with local resident welfare associations conducted collection drives to gain deposits (ranging from Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500) for developing a sanitation network.
  • Pump house: The project was launched with a push for creating a pump house, setting up over 5,650 manholes and providing sewerage connections to 23,700 households, a sewage treatment plant with a 12 MLD capacity was also set up. Going forward, many other municipalities in Tamil Nadu have sought to adopt this model.
  • A systems-based approach should be adopted: along with a push for protecting “blue infra” areas places that act as natural sponges for absorbing surface runoff, allowing groundwater to be recharged. At the household level, we can encourage citizens to take up rainwater harvesting, urban roof terrace greening, urban roof water retention tanks and having a green corridor around residential buildings.
  • Water permeable roads: Municipalities could be encouraged to make existing roads permeable with a push for green landscaping and rain gardens. At the city level and beyond, policymakers should push for “sponge cities” and incorporate disaster planning. A mindset shift, in citizenry and policymakers, is urgently needed.


  • Urban planning and urban pollution are largely neglected in our governance model. Unplanned cities are facing the various problems. We must embrace the technology to fight the pollution in urban India. 
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