Participants run during a half marathon on a smoggy morning in New Delhi, India Image Credit: Reuters archive

India’s air catastrophe is endemic and a health emergency of far greater magnitude than is understood or acknowledged, says a new report.

A recent study by the Lancet Planetary Health journal has rung alarm bells even in cities considered relatively ‘clean’ by flagging high levels of PM2.5 (the ultrafine particles that directly enter the lungs and bloodstream) in big cities other than the capital Delhi. The startling facts reveal that in India’s 10 largest cities, poor air quality has caused a significant portion of daily deaths.

Looking at the period between 2008 and 2019, other than Delhi the multi-city study considered the metros of Bengaluru, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Chennai, Pune, Shimla, and Varanasi. It linked 33,000 deaths in these cities to hazardous air quality.

In all these towns air quality levels were more than WHO guidelines. To put it in perspective, 7.2% of daily deaths during this period were caused by air pollution, fatalities in the present would be at par if not more.

While Delhi is the usual suspect and rightly so, revelations around cities like Mumbai — with sporadic days of smog in the recent past, Kolkata, and Chennai should worry us deeply as also the report that the mountain air in the hill station of Shimla is also compromised. Barring the capital and Shimla, all other cities are geographically distant from the states of Punjab and Haryana whose farm stubble burning is blamed as a key pollution trigger.

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Poisonous air

The report records Delhi with the highest death count attributable to air pollution — 11.5% of all deaths — amounting to 12,000 each year with Varanasi coming a close second. The only surprise is if this is the situation in India’s cleaner cities, imagine the health of its citizens in north Indian towns where the air is flagged.

With deaths even when levels are below the national standard, it is the air quality standards in the country that need urgent intervention as well as the understanding that tackling air pollution cannot be a seasonal challenge. It is an invisible killer.

Just because the sky is clear doesn’t mean the air is healthy even though the lack of political will gives other signals. Which party spoke about this health emergency in the recent elections?

Without exception, Indian cities feature in all global reports on air pollution. In the annual World Air Quality Report 2023, 83 out of the world’s 100 most polluted cities were from India with PM 2.5 levels more than 10 times higher than the WHO guidelines.

What is obvious from the latest report is that there is no let-up in the country’s air pollution and the health crisis.

There are only two ways to look at it, either the policies are not working, or there is no attempt to fix it other than in the short term. The non-transparent approach is highlighted by the extension of the deadline of the National Clean Air Programme to improve air quality by another two years.

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Respiratory infection

PM2.5 particles are not only the most dangerous pollutants they also exacerbate existing diseases. In Delhi, its impact on the lungs of young children has been enormous, a study three years ago indicated that one out of every three school-going children suffered from asthma and upper respiratory infections.

While repeated exposure increases the damage, what needs now to also be documented is the impact on children in other cities.

Clean air is a fundamental right of a citizen, yet India’s approach remains limited to ad hoc short-term measures during the winter months when smog is visible, and the air quality is noticeably poor.

Our policy tends to be reactive rather than proactive. Last year saw an increase in ‘severe’ air quality days, with 24 such days and over 200 days when pollution levels exceeded standards. The periods of clean air were quite limited.

Much is written about why India cannot fix its air, like Beijing. With vehicular and industrial emissions causing havoc on health we as citizens are at a point of no return. Do we care deeply enough for accountability, beginning at the local level? The government will only confront vote-banks when civil society prioritises it.

The Lancet report establishes that daily exposure is fatal. Making it a priority would only save lives and time is running out.