Air pollution deaths, a distress signal

The State of Global Air 2017 report, prepared by prestigious US agencies and released last week, presents an alarming picture of air pollution in India both in relative and absolute terms. It is common knowledge, gained from experience, that the quality of air is deteriorating in all parts of the country. The report, as similar studies have done in the past, backs it up with facts and figures. Deaths from the most polluting particulate matter, called PM2.5, have increased by 48% in the country since 1990 while ozone-related deaths have increased by 148%. There are more deaths due to air pollution in China than in India. But the numbers are falling there while they are increasing in India. The report has said that 91 people out of one lakh died prematurely of air pollution in 2015. More people died of air pollution in India for the first time since 1990 than in China, which recorded 85 deaths per lakh.

The government claims that there is no scientific evidence that air pollution caused deaths. It has always been an untenable claim because it is well known that pollution causes a wide range of ailments including respiratory, cardiac and skin diseases, some of which lead to death. The first step in the fight against pollution must start from its acceptance as a serious health hazard. Even when it is partly accepted, the steps are nowhere near adequate. Improving public transport, reduction of diesel pollution, better garbage management and curbs on the burning of agricultural waste are important steps that need to be taken. But the plans are hamstrung by shortage of funds, misuse of available funds, lack of initiative in the implementation of plans and failure to communicate the message of clean air to all stake-holders. For example, farmers have to dispose of their agricultural waste before the next crop, but the best practices to recycle the waste have not been provided to them. The smoke from the burning of crop waste in neighbouring states was a major factor that caused an emergency situation in Delhi last winter.

Pollution of any kind is a result of a particular style of development. There is the need to reorient development without these side effects, and it is necessary to take the problem of pollution more seriously. It is spreading from big cities to towns and even villages. The report says outdoor air pollution is the third leading health risk in the country. It should be realised that health costs will be much more than the cost of taking steps to curb pollution.

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