New Delhi: While the Congress promised to strengthen the National Clean Air Program (NCAP) in order to “urgently tackle the problem of pollution” in its election manifesto released on Tuesday, the move may have come a tad too late, with a global report highlighting the extent of damage toxic air has already caused in India.
A 2019 report by State of Global Air (SoGA) says more than 1.2 million ( 12 lakh) people died in India in 2017 due to outdoor and indoor air pollution. This is an increase of 1 lakh people from 1.1 million deaths in 2015.
Air pollution is a major concern for India as New Delhi has got the notorious tag attached to it of being the most polluted capital in the world. The National Capital Region (NCR) is also ranked as the most polluted region across the globe.
After a long wait, India did introduce the National Clean air programme (NCAP) in January this year but it doesn’t have any legal backing or strong enough mandate. This is a real cause of concern, as among the 20 most polluted cities today, more than 15 are from India. That is why, while air pollution is the fifth biggest cause of death globally, it ranks third highest among all health risks in the country.
In the choked cities such as Delhi, Gurgaon and Faridabad as well as other cities in Indo-Gangetic plains, the air quality is so bad that it puts one in the bracket of a chain smoker even if one doesn’t smoke at all.
“Air pollution is a public health emergency in India and almost the entire country breathes air more polluted than the guidelines set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). About 80 per cent of the country does not even meet the Indian standards,” says Sunil Dahia, the clean air campaigner of Greenpeace.
The SoGA 2019 report says 92 per cent people across the world breathe air which has PM 2.5 levels much worse than prescribed under WHO guidelines. Air pollution kills more than five million people every year – one in every 10 deaths across the world – as per the report.
Over half of the total deaths attributed to air pollution happened in India and China in 2017. While China improved the air quality with stringent norms enforced, India’s air quality has worsened during the same time because of no strict norms or framework to keep the air clean. The average PM 2.5 levels in India remained 70 per cent higher than that of China.
“The only way to deal with this crisis is by reducing emissions and capping the consumption of polluting fossil fuels among other measures across sectors. Reducing the diesel and coal consumption in transport and power generation can help us move towards clean air,” says Dahia.
Due to the hazardous effects of polluted air, globally the life span of a child born today is shortened by 20 months. However, in South Asia the condition is far worse. Here, the life expectancy loss is as much as 30 months (two and a half years!). “Overall, the long-term exposure to outdoor and indoor air pollution contributed to nearly five million deaths from stroke, diabetes, heart attack, lung cancer and chronic lung disease in 2017,” the report says. Four South Asian countries – Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan – are among the most polluted and account for over 1.5 million air-pollution related deaths.
Two years ago in 2017, the State of Global Air report had highlighted the issue of alarming number of deaths in India but Indian government had rejected the findings, saying it will not depend on “global studies” for pollution deaths.
However, last year a report by Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) – India’s apex medical research body that works under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare – published a research. It concluded that in India one in every eight deaths happens due to air pollution. In 2017, a total of 1.24 million people died due to indoor and outdoor air pollution. The research also found that while India has 18 per cent of the global population, it suffered 26 per cent of premature mortality and health loss attributable to air pollution globally.
However, despite the findings of its own research body, government of India has done little to tackle this health menace and it is looking for more “conclusive evidence”. At a time when the main opposition party has included the issue in its parliamentary election manifesto, one can only hope that other parties, including the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party, also take up the issue and it becomes a real concern for action, not just a promise on paper.