India is catching up fast with China in terms of deaths linked to foul air; and could go past its northern neighbour if pollution counter-measures stay as it is.
Almost 1.1 million people died in India two years ago because of air pollution, according to the 2017 State of Global Air report by the Health Effects Institute (HEI) and Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at University of Washington and University of British Columbia.
The alarming number is a few thousand shy of China’s air-related deaths in 2015.
The report — drawing from the IHME’s Global Burden of Disease data and released on Tuesday — says the two Asian giants account for more than half the air pollution-related deaths globally. The primary killer is PM2.5 — micro dust particles that stick to people’s lungs and air passage, causing serious health problems and even death.
“Until 2010, India and China were on the same plain. But China has a comprehensive plan now that looks at both local and regional causes of pollution. In India, there is no significant policy to reduce pollution at the source level or clean up the air,” said Sunil Dahiya, a Greenpeace India campaigner.
In 2015, more than a quarter of global air-related deaths happened in India. That was slightly below China’s record but could surpass the neighbour. The report suggests PM2.5 levels are rising in India, but it appears to have stabilised in China.
Instead of calculating average air pollution levels where all areas receive equal weight, as is typically done, population-weighted averages give weight to the areas in proportion to their population, so that greater weight is given to exposures in areas where the most people live.
The data show the global average annual population-weighted PM2.5 was 44 microgrammes for each cubic metre in 2015. The level in India was 74 — much higher than the threshold of 60.
Experts blamed lack of proactive policies for the rising air pollution. “Air quality is not mainstream in India. Even in our Swacch Bharat schemes...do not see air mentioned,” said Prarthana Borah, the country director of Clean Air Asia.
New Delhi, which is on a WHO list of cities with the foulest air, has been grappling with crippling air pollution, prompting the government to initiate emergency measures such as an odd-even road rationing formula for cars. On Tuesday, the PM2.5 level was recorded “poor” at 208 by the government monitoring agency SAFAR. Other than kneejerk reactions, long-term measures were hardly taken, experts alleged. The air pollution data call for a “national emergency”, according to the Centre for Science and Environment.