Air pollution is exacting a heavy toll on India. About 1.24 million Indians died of air pollution in 2017, accounting for one in eight deaths that year, and this is a conservative estimate. More than half of the people were below the age of 70. The average loss of life expectancy in India due to this ‘death by breath’ has been estimated to be around 1.7 years.
Toxic air causes serious diseases that afflict children as well as adults. Apart from cardiovascular ailments, pneumonias, respiratory disorders and cancers, air pollution is now also clearly linked to an increased risk of diabetes, depressed immunity and inflammatory responses that damage body tissues. Apart from severe asthma, children also experience loss of cognitive power that impedes intellectual growth and academic performance.
With many cities and towns in India far exceeding the limits for particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), and also exposed to noxious gases such as ozone and methane as well as heavy metals, there is an urgent need to combat this public health threat through concerted actions that involve many sectors. After years of denying or underplaying the threat, there is now a clear acknowledgement across governmental agencies that a resolute and effective response is needed.
Even by the national air quality standards, which are less stringent than those set by WHO, 102 cities have been listed as “non-attainment” cities by the Central Pollution Control Board. Non-attainment cities are those which over a five-year period do not meet the national ambient air quality standards for PM10 or nitrogen dioxide.
There is growing evidence that air pollution is a rural problem as well. Indoor pollution arises from burning of solid biomass fuels for cooking. Clean energy is the solution that is still to be scaled up to eliminate this form of pollution.
Major sources of the outdoor air pollution are multiple: windblown dust and construction for the larger PM10; vehicular emissions, coal-based power plants, industry, waste burning and crop-residue burning for PM2.5.
Indoor air pollution is being addressed through the Ujjwala scheme that provides liquified petroleum gas for cooking to women from economically weaker sections. In January 2019, the National Clean Air Programme was launched to reduce the particulate matter pollution by 20-30%—from 2017 levels—by 2024.
Some state governments such as Delhi and municipal authorities in several cities such as Ahmedabad have initiated action plans to improve air quality. Chennai has increased generation of solar energy by utilising metro rail rooftops. Raipur registered a reduction in particulate matter levels by implementing industrial regulations.
The NITI Aayog has proposed a 14-point action plan to combat air pollution. It has suggested electrifying public transport, taxis and three-wheelers, curbing vehicular pollution in 10 worst cities by banning transition traffic and phasing out private diesel vehicles by 2022.
A national emission trading system, cleaner construction practices, a business model to utilise crop residues and an integrated waste-management policy have also been advised. The government think-tank favours compulsory mechanised dust removal in most polluted cities, integrated efforts to tackle forest fires while pushing for clean cooking practices. It has also called for public ownership through behaviour change, developing consistent and quantified national, sub-national and sectoral plans and improving air-quality monitoring systems.
This ambitious array of actions offers hope of rolling back the growing menace of air pollution. Implementation, however, requires political commitment. Let us hope, for the health of all Indians, that the will to curb air pollution grows stronger and faster than the particulate matter that pollution brings.
(K Srinath Reddy is the president of the Public Health Foundation of India)
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