Illegal urbanization is the biggest problem; shanty towns and unauthorized colonies are destroying our cities.

Ranking high in the World Air Quality Report 2021 released by IQAir, a Swiss firm, is a matter of shame for any country, but India continues to do so. In fact, air pollution worsened in 2021, ending a three-year trend of improvement. With Delhi as the most polluted capital and 63 out of top 100 polluted cities in the world in India, it is time our political masters woke up and squarely faced the problem which is literally killing millions of people.
The World Air Quality Report 2021 has indeed painted a grim picture: “India was home to 11 of the 15 most polluted cities in Central and South Asia in 2021. Delhi saw a 14.6% increase in PM2.5 concentrations in 2021 with levels rising to 96.4 µg/m³ from 84 µg/m³ in 2020. No cities in India met the WHO air quality guideline of 5 µg/m³. In 2021, 48% of India’s cities exceeded 50 µg/m³, or more than 10 times the WHO guideline.”
Ariyalur in Tamil Nadu has the cleanest air, but even the “cleanest” is three times the World Health Organization’s guideline.
The situation is grim but government at any level—Central, state, or local—is doing little to check air pollution. The Observer Research Foundation last year said that “India’s air quality has deteriorated exponentially in the past few decades, due to various reasons including rapid urbanization, industrialization, and population growth.”
To be precise, illegal urbanization is the biggest problem; shanty towns and unauthorized colonies are destroying our cities. The consequences are rampant encroachments, unregulated and dangerous construction, solid waste dumping, contamination and death of water bodies, drying of aquifers, and long is the list of woes. Unsurprisingly, many areas have become dust bowls.
Addressing these issues presupposes a fundamental change in governance and politics. This certainly involves actions that would be disliked by the beneficiaries of chaotic urbanization: the residents, the local authorities, the local politicians, the bleeding-heart activists, even certain sections of the media. Anybody determined to clean up the mess runs the risk of being calumniated as “anti-poor”, heartless, etc.
There is an illegal practice which is rampant. It is called, to use the local lingo, “plotting”. Farmers and/or builders carve out plots from agricultural land, and sell them for building colonies.
It begins with a win-win situation. The original landowners get much higher prices than they would have got had they sold it as farmland; those with meagre resources get a house of their own; the officials concerned get bribes; local politicians provide protection from legal action and get votes in return; all manner of employers get cheap workforce.
But karma is never without consequences. Since plotting is done without any rules and regulations, and mostly by those who are not developers and colonizers, it creates myriad problems—from the paucity of water and lack of sewerage to the absence of open spaces and public amenities. From the point of view of the environment, illegal urbanization hugely damages the atmosphere and water bodies.
Quite apart from the activities that damage the surroundings, the very structure of illegal localities is such that it creates a lot of dust which, in turn, exacerbates air pollution. Dust is perhaps the biggest factor poisoning the atmosphere; this is the reason that soon after rains, the air quality index (AQI) improves.
While the World Air Quality Report 2021 has rightly highlighted the danger of air pollution in India, its analysis of the situation is not very accurate. It said, “It is estimated that 20% to 35% of total urban PM2.5 concentrations is directly or indirectly due to internal combustion engines in motor vehicles. Annual vehicle sales in India are expected to increase, with an estimated fleet number reaching 10.5 million in 2030.”
Wrong analysis, because, as we mentioned earlier, the main problem is because of dust.
In an effort to curtail the contribution to air pollution from motor vehicles, India has adopted rigorous vehicle emission standards for new vehicles. The BS-VI standard is currently equivalent to the Euro 6-1 standard and will be equivalent to the Euro 6-2 standard beginning in April 2023, the report said. “Emissions testing methodologies capable of measuring emissions under real-world driving conditions, rather than more simple laboratory drive cycles, are in development at the International Centre for Automotive Technology in India with an anticipated release of 2023.”
While improving vehicular pollution is good, it would not help much because the root-cause is different—dust.
Then there is stubble burning in north India in winters. But, again, just as checking dust is difficult and politically risky, so is eradicating crop burning.
So, environmentalists and politicians have found a scapegoat in the auto sector. Meanwhile the real culprit, dust, continues to blow in the wind.
The author is a freelance journalist