Environment & energy, Social policy, Health | South Asia

29 November 2021

Air pollution in India’s capital is five times worse than what is considered ‘safe’, and the government must enact tougher laws to protect Indians from the effects of toxic air, Kaveri Mishra writes.

India is facing an air pollution crisis. The country’s capital, Delhi, has spent recent weeks engulfed in a blanket of thick smog, making it hard for people to even breathe.

Air pollution is a serious threat to human life – the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that seven million people die every year worldwide due to polluted air.

It is taking a toll on India’s health. In fact, at least 30 per cent of all deaths in India can be attributed to air pollution, and air-related diseases like lung disease, cancer, respiratory failure, asthma, and strokes are on rise.

The capital Delhi’s pollution levels are rated as ‘highly toxic’, and five times higher than those recommended as ‘safe’ by the WHO. This is an overall improvement compared to some recent years, but still creates serious health problems.

Three cities from India make the list of the top 10 cities with the worst air quality, and Delhi tops the list, registering an average of 556 on the Air Quality Index. Older citizens and children are worst affected by this.

More on this: Tackling India’s air pollution

Hospitals are seeing rise in pollution related patients. With the city still not having overcome the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the health system is poorly prepared to face yet another crisis.

Air pollution is a drag on the economy too. One report estimates that air pollution from fossil fuel sources costs the world $8 billion every day, or a staggering 3.3 per cent of global gross domestic product.

In Delhi, toxic air pollution levels have been part of ordinary life for too long. Parents are fearful to send their children to schools and more employees are seeking permission to work from home.

Schools have been closed and work has come to a halt at all construction sites. Delhi’s leaders are even seeking permission from the federal government for a complete lockdown, like the city saw for the COVID-19 pandemic.

More on this: Delhi: megacity, megatraffic, and megapollution

Many factors have contributed to these high pollution levels, from use of fossil fuels in transportation to corporations burning agricultural waste in neighbouring states. November is an especially toxic time, as fireworks and other objects are burned to celebrate Diwali.

The Delhi government is looking at means to tackle this issue, and as well as proposing a lockdown, the Supreme Court of India has begun seeking action against industries, vehicles, and power plants that emit toxic pollutants in the air.

In 2019 a National Clean Air Program was also initiated, with the aim to reduce levels of air pollution by 20 to 30 per cent by 2024 in over 122 of the country’s worst affected cities.

As a result, some action has been taken in cities like New Delhi, Ahmedabad, and Pune, like health risk communications plans, the implementation of pollution monitoring stations, and more regulation of industrial emissions. These are good first steps, but more must be done to enforce stricter regulations to protect the country’s air and the health of Indians.

Some developed countries have been through this before. But facing serious pollution, measures were taken to prevent it getting out of control. Developing countries needs to learn from those countries and enact tough laws at every level.

Cleaner air can be a huge boon to India’s health, environment, and economy. From regulating industry to education and awareness, Indian governments must do more to tackle this issue.

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