From ill-equipped public hospitals to shortage of doctors, India’s public health system is in a comatose state, so much so that even tackling common diseases often seems like a challenge. Not surprising then that pollution-related health issues are brushed under the carpet.
But statistics show that such an attitude is fraught with dangerous health consequences: Nearly 660 million people, mostly in north India, are living with annual levels of PM (particulate matter) 2.5 that exceeds national air quality standards.
These extremely fine particles are linked with increased rates of chronic bronchitis, lung cancer and heart disease. In 2014, a WHO report confirmed India’s worst fears. Without mincing words, it said that Indian cities were ‘death traps’ because of ‘very high air pollution levels’.
Apart from refusing to accept the WHO report, the government did something even more sinister: It failed to take action on a report done by the Central Pollution Control Board and the Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute of Kolkata, which showed that every third child in Delhi had reduced lung function due to air pollution.
The report was not even shared with the schools that participated in the study, denying them a chance to take some timely and corrective action. According to the 2014 Global Burden of Disease report, air pollution is the fifth-largest killer in India.
One of the key emitters of PM is vehicular pollution but hardly anything has been done to curb such emissions. The Auto Fuel Vision and Policy 2025 report, submitted in 2014, recommended upgrading to Bharat Stage VI auto fuels by 2024. But that still remains on paper. PM is not only injurious to health but also its core — black carbon — is responsible for increasing global warming.
Apart from diesel vehicles, the other sources of black carbon are biomass-based cook stoves, cook ovens and brick kilns. Earlier black carbon was considered 400 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period but the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change values put this at more than 800 times.
Other than the obvious ill effects on public health, air pollution also hurts India economically. According to the World Bank’s Diagnostic Assessment of Select Environmental Challenges, the cost of serious health consequences from particulate pollution is estimated at 3% of India’s GDP.
The rising air pollution has become a handy tool for the developed world to shift the blame for climate warming on black carbon and other short-lived climate-forcers to buy time for its own mitigation goals. Either way, it’s about time that some corrective action was taken even if that means imposing a congestion tax and taxing polluting diesel vehicles.