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Killer on the loose

Air pollution is the fifth largest killer in India. We must act now to reduce public health risks to all.

india Updated: Feb 17, 2013 22:40 IST

There are several challenges to the India growth story and one among them is how to grow economically without damaging the country’s already fragile environment. Unfortunately, India is not doing well in that department thanks to inadequate policies and infrastructure, lack of political will and, in many cases, pure public apathy towards the issue.

According to the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) report by the United States-based Health Effect Institute, air pollution and related diseases are the fifth largest killer in India and are responsible for 6,20,000 premature deaths in the country. This is up from 1,00,000 in 2000 — a six-fold increase.

In the wake of the GBD report, the Centre for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based non-profit organisation, analysed the latest air quality data available with the Central Pollution Control Board for 2010 and its findings are disturbing and should ring alarm bells: close to half of Indian cities are reeling under severe particulate pollution while newer pollutants like nitrogen oxides, ozone and air toxics are increasing the public health challenge. In fact, contrary to existing perceptions, air pollution even in rural India is as bad, or may be worse, than air pollution in urban India. In the latter, the problem has been compounded by exhaust fumes from an increasing vehicular population.

In China, India has an example of what can happen if it does not fix the problem now. Beijing’s air pollution soared past levels considered hazardous by the World Health Organisation in January. In the first week of this month, flights were grounded as visibility fell to around 200 metres across Beijing. India’s growth rate is nowhere near China’s yet and if this state of affairs continues, India will be in bigger trouble. The government must put in place information systems on daily air quality with health advisories; strengthen an implementation plan for critically polluted areas, improve public transport options and make National Ambient Air Quality Standards legally binding in all regions.