Two studies released on September 1, 2021 on the damage to human health due to increasing air pollution in India have revealed very worrying facts. One study is conducted by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago in the United States and the other by the Lung Care Foundation and the Pulmocare Research and Education Foundation of India.
According to the first study (University of Chicago), India is one of the most polluted countries in the world. The most polluted areas in the country are the Northern Plains (Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and West Bengal). The region is home to 40 percent of the country’s population (480 million people). According to the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), in 2019, the average particulate matter (PM) 2.5 concentration in the region was 70.3 micrograms, the highest in the world and seven times the WHO’s guideline. The World Health Organization’s guidelines are that it should be 10 micrograms per cubic meter. The amount of PM2.5 was 7 times higher.
Air pollution is injurious to human health. It infects humans with a variety of diseases, and the higher the level of air pollution, the lower the average life expectancy. At present, the average age of an Indian is declining by 5.9 years. Due to high levels of air pollution in Delhi, the average life expectancy is declining by 9.7 years, while in Uttar Pradesh it is 9.5, in Bihar 8.8, in Haryana 8.4, in Jharkhand 7.3 and in West Bengal 6.8 years. Air pollution is no longer confined to the northern states of India but has extended geographically to the central and southern states of the country over time.
The second study is conducted by Dr. Arvind Kumar of Lung Care Foundation and Dr. Sandeep Salvi of Pulmocare Research and Education Foundation of India. Their study has revealed that in Delhi, Mysore, and Kottayam, the percentage of children suffering from asthma and allergies, airways obstruction, and childhood obesity in highly air-polluting areas is higher than in low air-polluting areas. One in three school-going children in Delhi suffers from asthma, more than 50 percent suffer from sneezing, 44.9 percent from itchy watery eyes while 22.6 percent of children in Mysore and Kottayam suffer from asthma. School-going children in Mysore and Kottayam have also a much lower percentage of air-borne diseases than Delhi.
According to the above study, the percentage of diseases is directly related to the level of air pollution. Obesity in children today is not due to eating or drinking, it is due to air pollution. Children’s lungs become weak, and exposure to polluted air affects their lungs, which can increase the risk of asthma as well as the child’s weight. Boys have a higher percentage of asthma than girls. Sadly, some children are unaware that they have asthma.
Every year one or the other international organization mentions the deaths of people due to air pollution. According to a report by Greenpeace Southeast Asia’s Air Quality, in 2020, 120,000 people in India died of air pollution-related diseases and the country suffered a financial loss of Rs 2 lakh crore. In Delhi, 54,000 people have died due to air pollution, and Rs. 58,895 crore have been lost. Millions of people die every year from air pollution in different cities of the country. According to the latest reports, even our children are now suffering from deadly diseases due to breathing in polluted air. According to a report by the State of Global Air 2020, 116,000 children in India could not complete even the first month of their lives due to air pollution.
India, in respect of children’s death due to air pollution, is worst affected than Nigeria (67,900), Pakistan (56,500), and Ethiopia (22,900). Every day 318 children die in our country while 186 in Nigeria, 155 in Pakistan, and 63 in Ethiopia due to air pollution.
According to a 2020 report by IQAir AirVisual, in the 2019 World Air Quality Report, Delhi was named the world’s most polluted capital and Ghaziabad the most polluted city. Delhi has been the world’s most polluted capital for the third consecutive year (2018 to 2020) and 22 of the top 30 most polluted cities in the world are in India. With each new report, the number of polluted cities in India is increasing and so is the density of pollution. In 2012 and 2014, Delhi was declared the most polluted city in the world by different international organizations.
All these reports were and are a warning to India because the new reports are also telling us that air pollution is causing great harm to human health. Our lungs are getting weaker and we are suffering from respiratory problems and diseases like asthma. As a result, the average age is declining rapidly. The Chicago University report highlights that the average age of Indians is lower in 2019 than in 2017. According to the State of India’s Environment Report 2019, 1 lakh children under the age of 5 died due to air pollution in the country and according to the current report, the number is 1 lakh 16 thousand. Children are the future of our country. Air pollution is weakening their lungs and causing them to suffer from diseases such as asthma, and obesity.
Alas! Whenever some international organization releases a report on air pollution in India, the Government of India starts rejecting it outright. A 2014 report by Yale University was rejected by the then Union Environment Minister Anil Dave. A 2016 World Organization report was rejected by the then Union Environment Minister Harshvardhan, saying such ranking is irrelevant.
The current Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar has gone still further in rejecting an international report of air pollution in India. When a Member of Parliament expressed concern over the rising air pollution in the country and said that if the government pays attention to clean air so that people do not die prematurely from the diseases caused by it, Prakash Javadekar replied that air pollution has nothing to do with diseases and also said that no Indian research proves this fact, critics are just scaring people.
This irresponsible statement of Prakash Javadekar was also discussed at the international level. At the 25th Conference of the Parties in Madrid, Spain, Mira Naira, Director of the World Health Organization, said: People of all classes and ages are suffering from airborne diseases and their age is also declining. At the same time, Meera Naira quipped that there is no research that shows that air pollution does not affect Indians and forgives them.
Now the question arises that if air pollution does not affect Indians, then why do the Delhi and the Union governments blame their neighboring states for Delhi’s pollution every year? Why are Delhi schools closed on high pollution days in winter? Why is construction work halted for some time? Why is there a need for an even-odd system of running vehicles on roads? and why is there a need to install smog towers in Delhi?
Air pollution is on the rise in Delhi as well as in almost all other cities of the country. Apart from international reports, air quality reports released in the country also revealed that air pollution is rising. According to a Greenpeace Organization of India’s report released on January 21, 2020, 80 percent of the country’s cities are polluted by national standards. The report also mentions that Lunglei is the only city in the state of Mizoram that meets international standards. The cause of increasing air pollution in India is the development model adopted for economic development in our country, and the wrong plans adopted by Union and State governments for development work.
A new draft of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was released on March 23 to dilute the 2006 Environmental Impact Assessment during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. In this draft, the Union government has included the provision of post-facto clearance, i.e. approval of existing projects with penalty even if they do not meet the environmental norms. With this provision, projects like LG Polymer (Visakhapatnam), which are emitting toxic gases into the atmosphere and endangering people’s lives, will also be approved.
In addition to launching three development projects in the environmentally sensitive area of Mullam National Park and Bhagwan Mahavir Sanctuary in Goa, 30 other projects in the environmentally sensitive areas are also sanctioned. With the launch of three development projects in Goa, deforestation as well as coal transportation, and expansion of industries will further increase air pollution. According to a Global Forest Watch Report, 20 percent more forests have been cut down in the country in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic. Deforestation increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the air whereas forests help reduce air pollution. The absence of forests increases the level of air pollution.
The Union and State governments should take immediate steps to reduce air pollution with proper planning and not by rejecting reports in this regard and making a mockery of the world. We have to learn from the experiences of different countries of the world because almost all the developed countries have also suffered from air pollution in the last century, but now they have overcome it.
In the city of London (England), in 1952, 4,000 people died in one week due to dangerous levels of air pollution, and 8,000 more died in the next four weeks. In the aftermath of this incident, the government of that country seriously planned to deal with the problem and overcome it. The government has made public transport so efficient that people generally use public transport instead of preferring private vehicles. In addition, there are special facilities for pedestrians and cyclists.
In France, public transport is provided free of charge on public holidays. Similarly, our government needs to streamline public transport services so that people need fewer private vehicles. For providing special care for pedestrians and cyclists, sidewalks and cycling spaces should be created as needed on the roads. The Union and State governments should ensure that hygienic devices are installed in the industrial units so that the hazardous gases emitted from the industries units do not endanger the health of people.
Instead of diluting the Environmental Impact Assessment of 2006, the Union government should strengthen it and implement it strictly so that industrial gases do not ruin people’s lives, polluted gases do not cause small children to get infected with deadly diseases and the lives of ordinary people could be prolonged and made disease-free. That is why the government of our country should seriously implement programs like the National Clean Air Programme and the Grade Response Action Plan. Any kind of polluting industrial units, vehicles, construction works, etc. should be penalized.
Now our Union and State governments do not have enough time to shirk their responsibilities and shift the blame on others. We must act swiftly to save the citizens of our country so that we can avoid tragedies like the one that happened in England in 1952. The Union and State governments as well as every citizen of our country have a responsibility to keep the environment clean. Therefore, it is the duty of all citizens of the country to keep their surroundings clean and not do anything that could harm the environment.
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About the Author
Dr. Gurinder Kaur, Former Professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala, and Visiting Professor at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute.