Prioritise tackling air pollution

The number of Indian cities in the top 15 most polluted cities in the world has more than doubled over the previous year. (PTI file photo)

A recent World Health Organisation report, which studied air pollution data in 4,300 cities worldwide in 2016, has laid bare the severity of India’s pollution crisis. A list of the world’s most polluted cities is dominated by India. Indeed, the 14 most polluted cities in the world in terms of particulate matter (PM) 2.5 concentrations are Indian, with Kanpur topping the list, followed by Faridabad and Varanasi.

The number of Indian cities in the top 15 most polluted cities in the world has more than doubled over the previous year. New Delhi was the sixth most polluted city in the world and the most polluted metropolitan city, followed by Cairo, Dhaka, Mumbai and Beijing. Government officials have responded to the WHO study by pointing out that India in general and Delhi, in particular, have implemented several pollution mitigation measures. They have drawn attention to the positive impact of these measures. Air pollution in Indian cities, according to them, is not as bad as reported by WHO. Indeed, India began taking steps to reduce pollution. But these were in 2017. The WHO’s study is based on 2016 data.

An important point that the WHO data underscores is that air pollution is not a problem that afflicts India’s metros alone. This is evident from the fact that a large number of Tier II and III cities figure among the most polluted. This is an important finding as most of our equipment to monitor air pollution is focused on the metros and not the small towns where the problem is more severe. In fact, monitoring of air pollution in rural India is completely ignored not just by our pollution control boards but also the WHO study. The study praises India’s Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana scheme, which has distributed 37 million women living below the poverty line with LPG connections. This has served to reduce indoor pollution which is high in rural India.

But the study provides shocking figures of the deadly implications of air pollution. Ambient air pollution claimed the lives of around 4.2 million people in 2016, it says, while indoor pollution caused some 3.8 million deaths that year. The study points out that air pollution is a critical risk factor for non-communicable diseases causing 24% of all adult deaths from heart disease, 25% from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and 29% from lung cancer. These are diseases whose treatment is expensive. It makes eminent economic sense then for the world to prioritise tackling air pollution. Developed countries must take responsibility for their historic emissions. They should transfer technology and funds to enable poorer countries to reduce air pollution.

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