Air pollution is causing premature deaths across India, with the latter now rivalling China. The two Asian giants account for more than half of all global deaths related to PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) exposure – particles of less than 2.5 micrometres.
According to the World Health Organisation's (WHO) latest urban air quality database, 98% of cities in low and middle income countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants do not meet WHO air quality guidelines. In high-income countries, that percentage decreases to 56%.
Globally, air pollution, both indoor and outdoor, caused nearly 7m deaths, or 11.6% of deaths in 2012, making it the world’s largest single environmental health risk, linked to higher rates of cancer, stroke and heart disease, as well as chronic respiratory conditions like asthma, according to World health statistics in 2016.
In India, pollution is a combination of vehicular, industrial and household sources. Construction dust contributes to coarse particulate matter. The burning of trash and leaves in the winter, a common practice in North India, adds to the toxicity, as does agricultural burning practised all across the country.
A report by two US-based health research institutes concluded that India’s poor air quality causes nearly 1.1m premature deaths/year, almost on a par with China.
The Health Effects Institute (HEI), in a report: The State of Global Air 2017, noted that long term exposure to fine particulate matter, which is the most significant element of air pollution, contributed to 4.2m premature deaths, and a loss of 103m healthy years of life in 2015, making air pollution the fifth highest cause of death among all health risks, including smoking, diet, and high blood pressure.
India and China were together responsible for over half the 4.2m premature deaths that took place globally in 2015. HEI's results are published every year in The Lancet medical journal.
Another Lancet report: Our polluted planet, pointed out that although countries, like the US and EU, have experienced declines in ozone levels and PM pollution over the past 25 years, the substantial burden of disease caused by pollution is proving to be a major hurdle in other countries.
In its most recent update in September 2016, WHO has said that India accounts for 75% of air pollution casualties, noting that 10 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in India. An earlier 2014 WHO report said India had 13 of the 20 most polluted cities - a small improvement.
However, India's politicians refute the claim, stating that there is not enough evidence directly linking air pollution to disease. The government claims that ozone levels were within safe limits for 2016.
The Central Pollution Control Board, an Environment Ministry organisation that sets guidelines for monitoring and controlling pollution, says international studies linking air quality in India to disease and death are flawed because ‘the ethologic, personnel immunity and demography of India are incomparable with international practices’.
Addressing India's parliament at the end of March 2017, environment minister, Anil Madhav Dave maintained there was not enough ‘evidence’ to establish a direct correlation between diseases and air pollution, and that air pollution could be 'just one' of the triggering factors for respiratory ailments and associated diseases.
In December 2016, the minister had asserted in parliament that there was no conclusive evidence and no credible studies linking mortality and air pollution; he also expressed reservations about the findings of foreign studies. Although the minister said the government would get its own study done to assess the health impacts of air pollution, he put the onus of mitigation on individual states.
Ministers in India have been known to be either indifferent or dismissive of reports that indict the country’s performance on health and environmental parameters. In 2014, the government dismissed a WHO report that stated Delhi’s air quality was the worst in the world.
However, the pressure is certainly on. The government has announced plans to tackle pollution. Although plans involve upgradation of the Central Pollution Control Board infrastructure and additional monitoring stations within six months, and initially pertains to the Delhi-NCR (National Capital Region) region, the plan is expected to provide a pollution monitoring roadmap to the rest of the country.
India was the first to adopt WHO's Global Monitoring Framework on noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), given that roughly 5.8m Indians die from heart and lung diseases, stroke, cancer and diabetes - equating to 1 in 4 Indians risks dying from an NCD - before they reach the age of 70.
In line with WHO’s Global action plan for the prevention and control of NCDs 2013-2020, India is the first country to develop specific national targets and indicators aimed at reducing the number of global premature deaths from NCDs by 25% by 2025.
Although India also included an additional target on reducing air pollution to the nine targets set out in WHO’s Global action plan for the prevention and control of NCDs 2013–2020 in its national NCDs strategy, the country further needs to develop more local-level environmental institutions to regulate and implement anti-pollution policies. A much more concerted effort needs to be undertaken to address the adverse impacts of air pollution.