Air pollution claims over 10 lakh lives every year and yet we tend to ignore it

In India, environmental impact contributes to 30 percent of the deaths, the reasons being infectious, parasitic, neonatal and nutritional issues, non-communicable diseases and injuries

Surjith Karthikeyan October 13, 2021 13:57:07 IST

Morning haze envelops the skyline on the outskirts of New Delhi on 16 October, 2020. AP

Of late, fewer COVID-19 cases have been recorded in India and this is the right time to focus on health hazards of ambient air pollution in India. This is all the more pertinent given the fact that winters are about to set in and the menace of stubble burning is once again threatening to choke our cities.

According to the recent World Air Quality Report (WAQR) 2020, India is the third most polluted country in the world in the PM2.5 ranking. Though India has shown slight improvement compared to last year, 22 of the world’s 30 worst regional cities for air pollution are still in India. Ghaziabad is the most polluted regional city in the world. Fourteen cities of India also figure in the list of the world’s 15 most polluted regional cities. New Delhi is also the most polluted capital city in the world. Transportation, electricity generation, biomass burning for cooking, industry, waste burning, construction, and episodic agricultural burning are highlighted in the report as the major sources of India’s air pollution.

Recent policy developments

The key measures recently implemented by the Government of India for controlling air pollution inter alia include setting up of a high-level task force for the management of air pollution in Delhi, Comprehensive Air Plan for Delhi, implementation of city-specific plans in 122 non-attainment cities and National Clean Air Programme. Though these have shown slight improvement in the condition, the long-term requirement is a comprehensive strategy for tackling air pollution in India.

Air pollution and public health

In India, environmental impact contributes to 30 percent of the deaths, the reasons being infectious, parasitic, neonatal and nutritional issues, non-communicable diseases and injuries. As per studies by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and public health experts globally, ambient air pollution is one of the major components of the environment's impact on public health. The WHO’s 2016 median year data shows that the absolute number of ambient air pollution attributable deaths in India is the second-highest in the World, next to China.

Male population deaths are more when compared to the female population in India, the reason being more exposure of the former to the outdoor air pollution.

The WHO has estimated that the health impact of air pollution costs more than 4 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the 15 countries that emit the most greenhouse gas emissions. The WHO’s 2016 median year data also reveals that ambient air pollution attributable death rate in India is 82 per 1 lakh population and the absolute number of ambient air pollution attributable death is 10,87,000. The position of India in this regard is 12th in the list of WHO member countries. If we analyse the burden of diseases, ambient air pollution attributable to disability-adjusted life year (DALYs) is 2,547 per 1 lakh for both sexes — which is 2,850 and 2,221 for males and females, respectively. The position of India is ninth in this regard, compared to 12th in the case of ambient air pollution attributable deaths.

Diseases caused by air pollution

India’s ambient air pollution attributable deaths are due to Ischaemic heart disease, followed by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lower respiratory infections, Stroke and Trachea, bronchus, lung cancers (Source: WHO). The situation may be more severe in the case of children born and brought up in polluted cities like Delhi. Also, children absorb more pollutants, as they breathe more rapidly than adults, resulting in stunted growth of their brains. Thus air pollution has a severe adverse impact on the growth of children. In the case of Ischaemic heart disease, the death rate is more severe in the case of males (37) than females (22) per 100,000 population.

Feasible policy options

Considering the serious consequences of air pollution in India, we need to adopt a comprehensive policy approach to get the best results. The best practices adopted successfully across the world need to be synchronised to get the desired results in the Indian context. The feasible policy options include: (a) cities in India to be developed into “New Transit Cities”; (b) environmental fiscal reforms in transport, energy and waste generation sectors; (c) strict enforcement of environmental regulations; (d) promoting and adopting environment-friendly technologies and products; and (e) creating environmental awareness. The implementation of these measures, with strict enforcement by the respective state governments, may definitely change the face of the Indian economy, resulting in sustainable development.

The writer is an Indian Economic Service (2010) officer serving as Deputy Secretary in the Ministry of Finance. Views expressed are personal.

Updated Date: October 13, 2021 14:23:21 IST

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