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A Survey of People’s Perception


A Survey of Public Perception and Awareness


Anumeha ★

If you live in a large Indian city and are anxious about breathing unsafe air, your concern is spot-on. But what should make you even more worried is that you are also one of the worst hit in the global air pollution crisis. Your exposure to toxic air is way higher than those living in developed countries, according to global air quality databases.

Let there be no doubt that air pollution kills. It can make you a victim of many fatal illnessess including heart attacks, strokes, lung diseases even before you become a clean-air crusader. For people living in Indian cities, air pollution data rings out a dire warning: clean up or perish. While environmentalists are taking the fight against this scourge to urban streets, citizens too are waking up to the impacts of noxious air.

In 2017, Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation, a Delhi-based not-for-profit working in India’s clean-energy space, commissioned Edelman India to conduct a survey of public awareness and perceptions on air quality in urban India. The details of this survey have been presented in a report in the form of tables, charts and graphs. Common Cause attempts to reproduce this information in this article. Some figures have been rounded up for clarity and easier comprehension. The edited excerpts are given below.

Objective and Methodology

The key objective of the public perception survey was to gauge public awareness, perceptions and attitudes towards air quality. The survey was intended to provide an initial assessment that could be further developed in its scope to provide better information and sharpen public outreach and engagement. Subsequently, it would facilitate discussions on successful interventions to improve air quality. A meaningful deliberation would necessitate public participation and a clear acceptance of the need for intervention.The survey entailed interviews with over a thousand young, educated and predominantly middle- class respondents spread across 11 cities (Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata, Kanpur, Patna, Ahmedabad, Gwalior, Varanasi and Lucknow). The awareness levels of these respondents were assessed on the following parameters:

Survey Findings

Awareness about Air Pollution

Three fourths of all respondents said they were aware of air pollution. Delhi showed a high level of awareness with no respondent claiming to be unaware. Varanasi and Lucknow lagged behind on the awareness scale. However, all cities shared a common concern for this critical issue, backed by a consistently-high level of awareness.1

Awareness about the Concept of Air Quality Index (AQI)

Among the respondents, two-thirds said that they were aware of the concept of AQI with Delhi and Mumbai showing a higher level of understanding. In Delhi, everyone seemed to know about AQI and there was a high level of claimed awareness across cities. Varanasi and Lucknow seemed to lag behind on this parameter as well, with 10 per cent of those interviewed in Lucknow unfamiliar with AQI.

Awareness about Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5

Again Delhi scored higher than others as the respondents of the city seemed to be better informed about PM 2.5. More than half of the respondents in other cities had no clue about PM 2.5. The survey threw up an interesting insight on how only seven per cent of all respondents knew the numerical value of National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQs) for PM 2.5, as prescribed by the Central Pollution Control Board.

How Bad is the Air?

About 60 per cent of respondents rated their city as acceptable or better in terms of the air quality (AQ) and the responses did not vary by age group, gender or income levels. The air quality was rated lowest by respondents in Delhi, Varanasi, Kolkata and Kanpur, with 24 per cent people in Delhi rating the AQ as very poor, compared to seven per cent in Mumbai. Of all the cities, Bangalore seemed to fare a little better, with 41 per cent rating the AQ as acceptable and only five per cent as very poor.

Impact of Pollution

The maximum impact of air pollution was experienced as irritation to eyes, nose, throat and on skin. One out of five individuals feels that the frequency of hospital visits has increased and there’s a significant impact on productivity. Almost one-third of respondents cited air pollution as the primary cause of depression. The following graph explains how the impact of air pollution is being felt.

Pollutants of Big Concern

It was observed from this survey that carbon dioxide was the pollutant of highest concern and there was unanimity across all cities on this. Particulate matter (PM) came a distant second, despite nearly half the respondents saying they were aware of it. Even individuals who said they understood AQI considered carbon dioxide as the top pollutant.

Surprisingly, Delhi too seemed to have a scant understanding of the dangers posed by particulate matter to health, given its current concentration and exposure levels. This suggests that although respondents claim to understand the toxic impact of air pollution, the awareness is rather superficial, and devoid of genuine knowledge.

The Biggest Sources of Air Pollution

An overwhelming 90 per cent of the respondents across all surveyed cities cited vehicular emissions as a significant source of air pollution. About half of them considered construction dust and emissions from diesel generators as significant contributors. A small percentage of the respondents felt brick kilns were a major source of air pollution.

Is Enough Being Done?

Majority of respondents were not satisfied with action taken by the government in controlling air pollution. Respondents from Varanasi were the least satisfied with government action, followed by those from Lucknow. Ironically, the survey also revealed that about 30 per cent of the respondents were somewhat satisfied with government efforts. This demonstrated a lack of understanding of the problem’s magnitude. The figures below illustrate this clearly.

Satisfaction with Government Action on Air Quality

  • Majority of respondents are not satisfied with the government’s action in controlling air pollution
  • Respondents from Varanasi are the least satisfied with government action, followed by Lucknow

Are People Willing to Support Firm Action?

The survey revealed some interesting facts. Almost seven out of 10 individuals surveyed were in favour of reducing the use of personal vehicles and supported carpooling. Over 60 per cent wanted a ban on plastics and termination of open burning of garbage. More than half of those surveyed wanted imposition of fine on industries and companies whose activities lead to higher air pollution and mooted shutting down the most-polluting industries in their cities.

Action Against Air Pollution to have an Adverse Impact on Environment

Another interesting insight that emerged from the survey is people’s reluctance in advocating legal strictures to prevent and prohibit air pollution. While 80 per cent of those surveyed considered air pollution a significant problem, only about 70 per cent were in favour of the government bringing in strict laws to minimise and control it. About 60 per cent agreed that polluting companies should be fined in accordance with the law.

This was perhaps because action against air pollution was seen as being detrimental to developmental goals. About 40 per cent of those surveyed were of the opinion that focusing on air pollution will have an adverse impact on growth and employment opportunities. About 65 per cent believed that economic development and environmental protection are conflicting issues.

The Delhi Effect

Media coverage on Delhi far outstrips other cities. The coverage for the Tier II cities was very low as even vernacular media-based reportage on air pollution was severely limited. Between June 2015-June 2017, there were more than 1,400 articles on air pollution levels in Delhi, compared to 153 on Mumbai, 10 on Kanpur and 85 on Bangalore.2

Media Interest is Cyclical

Most of the conversations on air pollution subside during the months of May-September. The focus on air pollution starts from Diwali and continues till January due to prevalent haze conditions and issues emanating from crop burning. Increased number of stories during March and April could be attributed to the Delhi government’s odd-even scheme in 2016.

People Keen to Know More

People are actively seeking more information on air pollution and its impact on health dominates public concern. For instance, individuals want to know more about the increase in medical conditions owing to air pollution (asthma, skin infection and poor visibility).They seek information on undertaking measures to minimise health impacts, how other cities and countries have dealt with air pollution as well as adverse impacts on children’s health. Nearly 70 per cent of the respondents are seeking information on air pollution frequently. In fact, respondents from Delhi are the most active seekers, with nearly 84 per cent seeking information pretty often. To this end, government is a trusted source of information while newspapers and television are the preferred media. An interesting finding was how 50 per cent of people across cities were aware of actions being undertaken in Delhi to curb air pollution.


The survey reflected how people are more aware and concerned about the damaging effects of toxic air pollutants, especially on the health of children and aged, as well as their adverse impact on the environment. They are eager to participate in affirmative action in mitigating air pollution and are open to educating themselves on the subject. The bigger metropolitan cities are naturally more vocal and aware of the consequences of air pollution as they are the worst sufferers. A majority of the citizens wish their respective state governments were more pro-active in tackling air pollution and are currently dissatisfied with the stop-gap and sporadic measures adopted by them. Vivid images of smog-filled cities, notorious traffic snarls, mountains of garbage at landfill sites, gen-sets emitting noxious gases are an every-day reality for city dwellers. It is worse for people residing near factories and landfill sites as inhaling the air contaminated with carcinogenic substances and gases aggravates the risk of cancer. The increased media focus has had positive outcome in developing a consensus that the air needs to be cleaned up now.

Anumeha? is a Senior Research Analyst at Common Cause. All data, tables and graphics have been reproduced with permission from Shakti Foundation. Data interpretation has been done by Common Cause after obtaining prior consent from the Foundation.

January-March, 2018