Air pollution: WHO’s stark air quality message and the road ahead for India

Delhi’s average life expectancy is 6.4 years lower than 69.4 — the national average. (Reuters/File)

The World Health Organization’s message while updating its air quality guidelines (AQGs) last month was stark: impact of air quality on public health was twice as bad as estimated previously. Despite lax standards, India is home to 37 of the 50 most polluted cities in the world. For example, India’s PM2.5 and PM10 standards are, respectively, 60 and 100 µg/m3 over a 24-hour period. According to the WHO’s new guidelines, the standards are 15 and 45 µg/m3.

It is no surprise that, as a result, India has among the worst mortality rates influenced by air pollution, according to IIT, Kanpur Professor Dr. Sachchida Nand Tripathi. According to estimates from Global Burden of Disease, 1.67 million Indians died in 2019 directly as a result of polluted air or because of air pollution exacerbating pre-existing conditions. With 340,000 deaths, Uttar Pradesh had the highest share, followed by Maharashtra with 130,000, and Rajasthan 110,000.

Delhi’s average life expectancy is 6.4 years lower than 69.4 — the national average. The number has now started to fall in coastal cities such as Chennai and Mumbai as well. Globally, an estimated 3.3 million people die of exposure to PM2.5 each year, with most of these deaths taking place in Asia.

India’s problem
India’s economic growth is entirely built on fossil fuels. Coal, natural gas, and oil contribute around 75% to the country’s power generation and over 97% of road transport with heavy emissions of SO2, CO, ozone, NO2, and particulate matter. India is proud of being the fastest growing large economy, and changing its power-generation methods or clamping down on diesel and petrol vehicles could be seen as throttling progress, according to Dr. Tripathi, also a Steering Committee Member of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change’s National Clean Air Programme (NCAP).

Yet, the growing need for personal vehicles and energy is worsening public health.

Killer threat
PM2.5 exposure can cause cerebrovascular disease, lung cancer, acute lower respiratory illness, and ischaemic heart disease, apart from worsening ailments such as depression. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) has been linked to ozone exposure. Even newborns and foetuses are also affected by prolonged exposure to air pollutants. Apart from stillbirths and premature deliveries, there is an increased risk of foetuses being born with under-developed lungs and congenital defects.

Economic losses
According to a 2019 study, India’s air quality wiped out 3% of its yearly GDP, causing a nearly Rs 7 lakh crore-loss. Most of this loss was due to employees failing to turn up at work, fewer people stepping out to shop, and health warnings turning foreign tourists away. An estimated 820,000 lost tourism jobs and 64% of businesses were caused by air pollution, official figures showed.

Poor air quality also offset 67% of solar panel’s cost advantage over grid power as ground-level smog and particulate matter choke the output. Several studies have also found a 25% drop in wheat and rice yield after prolonged ozone and PM exposure.

Way ahead
India needs to revisit the National Ambient Air Quality Standards without delay, revise it downwards to WHO’s levels, and implement those without exception, according to Dr. Tripathi. With the new WHO guidelines not being legally binding, a critical first step would be nationwide epidemiological studies to gather raw health data on air pollution. Without this data, it would be difficult to get a clear picture of how many Indians are suffering under air pollution.

The authorities must also acknowledge that Indians are equally susceptible to air pollution — so laxer standards for the sake of the economy puts the life of an average resident at risk.

China’s example
China passed a similar phase. Chinese cities faced severe air pollution with Beijing becoming notorious for its smog as it attempted to transform itself into the manufacturing hub of the world. But it successfully tackled the issue, despite not being WHO-compliant even after 10 years. It has put priority on zero-emissions transport, staggered the use of vehicles with internal combustion engines, and enforced strict clampdowns on pollution sources with few exceptions. China is now the largest electric vehicles and clean energy market and has the highest per-capita income in its history while still maintaining its influence as an economic powerhouse.

Clean energy
The National Clean Air Programme in India attempts to incorporate these solutions, but clean energy and e-mobility are still not dominant in India. States such as Telangana, Maharashtra, and Gujarat have introduced policies to improve their market shares, and year-on-year electric vehicle sales are climbing record highs.

Renewable energy has also risen dramatically in share since 2015 and crossed 100 GW — almost a quarter of the country’s installed power capacity — in August.

According to Dr. Tripathi, it is equally important to India’s air quality monitoring. CAAQMS monitors, controlled by CPCB, are expensive with only 312 installed in 156 cities. This leaves thousands of rural and urban pockets unmonitored.

Fortunately, several new, low-cost monitors have since entered service that capture not only PM2.5 and 10 readings but also gases such as SO2, methane, NO2, and secondary volatile organic compounds.

The Centre and state governments still need to boost the CAAQMS network’s density, that too on priority, according to Dr. Tripathi. Given the scale of India’s public health crisis, wasting more time could lead to a public health emergency.

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