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Air pollution is the biggest health risk in India, costing each Indian five years of their life. Indian all around the country face air pollution health risk related to high concentration of pollutants. However, regions in north India experience extreme air pollution levels, reducing life expectancy by over seven years.
This data was published in the latest Air Quality Life Index by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. The general public all over India already knows the severe impacts of air pollution. Still, it is essential to understand how high levels of air pollution can aggravate the current health risks and vulnerabilities in society. Is India aware of such deadly health risks? And is India going to do something about it?
The Air Quality Life Index was based on the statistics from the year 2020. The index mentioned that almost 63 percent of the country’s population lives in areas where air pollution levels surpass India’s air quality standard- 40 µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter). Not only is this level the highest in India, but globally.
From 2013 onwards, approximately 44 percent of the global increase in air pollution came from India. Air pollution levels in India have risen from 53 µg/m3 back in 2013 to 56 μg/m3 in 2022. It is ten times more than the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines.
The air pollution levels in north India are roughly 21 times higher than the WHO guideline limit. A study conducted by Lancet in 2019 stated that air pollution is responsible for more than 16 lakh deaths in India- which is around 17.8 percent.
Fine particulate matter, also known as PM2.5, is one of the most prominent toxic pollutants in the world. These particulates are smaller than 2.5 micrometers. PM2.5 are emitted into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned- that is, in industries, factories, and vehicular engines. Artificial fires and wildfires are also a source of PM2.5.
According to WHO, exposure to high levels of PM2.5 can lead to cardiovascular and respiratory disease and lung cancer. PM2.5 is a significant threat to public and planetary health.
PM2.5 is the primary pollutant in India, causing various health risks. Considering the levels of PM2.5 in the atmosphere, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) set up the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) in 2019. This program aimed to develop clean air action plans to reduce levels of PM2.5 pollution by 20 percent by 2024 in around 132 cities.
India has not done well in terms of air pollution reduction for a couple of years now. India has witnessed rising levels of air pollution since the 2000s due to rapid urbanization, industrial development, vehicular traffic, population growth, and power plants. The regions most affected by air pollution in Northern India include Bihar, Delhi, and Uttar Pradesh.
High air pollution levels are not just a feature of Northern Indian regions but are also becoming a feature of other Indian regions. Particulate pollution has spread over different regions in India over the past two decades. For example, Maharashtra’s pollution level has risen by 68.4 percent since 2000. Similarly, Madhya Pradesh’s pollution level has also risen by 77.2 percent.
Maharashtra is located in central India, while Madhya Pradesh is located in south India. This shows how air pollution has expanded in India. The combined population of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh is approximately 200 million population. Their life expectancy is also reduced by a few years- an average person loses 1 to 2 years of life.
According to the Index, pollution costs an individual in India around two years of life- much more than smoking costs an individual today (almost a year). Consuming alcohol costs an individual eight months of life, while polluted water, HIV/AIDS, malaria, regional and national conflict, and terrorism costs seven months, four months, three months, and nine days of life.
Coming to the coronavirus pandemic. Covid19 has had less impact on Indian and global air pollution levels. According to the Index, the air quality that citizens inhale reflects how their country understands the priority and risks associated with the health of its people. The Air Quality Life Index gives countries the chance to improve the health of their citizens and ecosystems if they are willing to abide by environmental rules and regulations.
Today, the Central Pollution Control Board is taking steps to improve air quality in India, especially in north India. The Central Pollution Control Board, under the MoEFCC, sets down an average of 40μg/m3 every year as the acceptable limit for fine particulate matter in the atmosphere. The WHO limit is more strict- imposing safe pollutant limits of no more than 5μg/m3.
Scientists and experts from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago found that reducing air pollution levels globally could add 2 years to life expectancy. As India’s PM2.5 levels are 55.8μg/m3, the country will be able to gain 1 and 5 years in life expectancy if air pollution is reduced to the WHO limit (5μg/m3) and the Indian Limit (40μg/m3).
The Northern Indian regions experience high pollution levels for various reasons, such as stubble burning by farmers. People from this region lose seven years of life expectancy if existing pollution levels continue- residents of Lucknow could lose nine years.
Several Indian policies, such as the NCAP and the XV Finance Commission, only focus on cities and towns. It does not tackle the air pollution that affects rural parts of India. A good air pollution approach would include more robust air quality guidelines and limits and actions at all levels that involve larger geographies of both urban and rural India, according to Bhargav Krishna from the Centre for Policy and Research.
According to a few new articles, the Indian government has planned an airshed strategy to combat air pollution as a part of the National Mission for Clean Air under the NCAP. This mission will begin in 2022 and will set a new goal- to reduce PM2.5 levels by 35 to 50 percent by 2026. The NCAP’s target of 20 to 30 percent reduction in PM2.5 levels by 2024 is far from meeting its goal- there has only been slight improvement.