India overtakes China in air pollution deaths

This new study shows that in 2015, India witnessed 1,640 premature deaths per day against China which had 1,620 deaths by air pollution
Pix : Delhi smog

The frightening increase in outdoor pollution across all large Indian cities is taking its toll. The latest assessment by the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) highlights that India now enjoys the dubious distinction of having the largest number of air pollution deaths in the world.

This new study shows that in 2015, India witnessed 1,640 premature deaths per day against China, which had 1,620 deaths by air pollution.

China suffered the maximum number of deaths from outdoor air pollution but this is no longer the case.

One of the main reasons for this is that twelve out of 20 Indian cities fall in the list of the most polluted in the world. These include Gwalior, Lucknow, Kanpur, Patna, Ludhiana, and Surat.

While Delhi has received the maximum adverse publicity because of its grave pollution levels, not enough attention has been paid to how pollution has become a killer disease across the subcontinent. The GBD substantiates an earlier study undertaken by Greenpeace India’s which emphasised that during the last 16 years, the average particulate matter exposure was higher for Indians than for their Chinese counterparts.

“This is a clear indication that China ’s strong measures to tackle pollution have contributed to the year-on-year air quality improvement on record, while in contrast, India’s pollution levels have increased over the past decade. This is just one more testimony of the deterioration of ambient air quality in India and immediate actions must be taken by the concerned authorities,” says Sunil Dahiya, a Greenpeace India campaigner. It does not require any elaboration to know that increasing consumption of fossil fuels including diesel has shown a quantum jump in particulate pollution levels in both countries.

Between 2005 and 2011, particulate pollution levels in China rose by over 20 per cent. In fact, 2011 proved to be the worst year for China in terms of ambient air pollution following which Beijing was dubbed the most polluted city in the world.

But the Chinese did not hesitate to take strong measures, including shutting down of offices and schools for extended periods in order to curb pollution. Private cars were also taken off roads and no new car licences were given to Beijing citizens. The results are there for everyone to see with air pollution levels having dipped substantially.

By contrast, India’s pollution levels have constantly moved upwards, making 2015 the most polluted year on record. “If these increasing pollution trends are juxtaposed with the increasing number of deaths, we can clearly see that India, unlike China, has failed to come up with a hard hitting and sustained effort to bring down air pollution levels.”

Delhi’s half-baked measures can be seen from the fact that post-Diwali, some strict measures including the barring of trucks from entering the NCR up to midnight and a ban on construction saw particulate levels drop by 33 per cent.

The ban has been lifted and the Delhi Pollution Control Committee has warned that increased dust pollution will see particulate matters rise once again. India’s plans to ease timelines for implementing the notified emission standards for coal-fired power plants has also increased air pollution levels.

Dahiya pointed out, “There are sufficient scientific reports to establish that thermal power plants are one of the key contributors to air pollution, yet the government seems to have not hesitated to ignore public health compulsions by appeasing the polluters by easing the norms.”

China adopted strict emission standards for thermal power plants in 2011 and then came up with a coordinated action plan in 2013, which led to the reduction in pollution levels, eventually halting the increase in air pollution deaths.

Recently, UNICEF highlighted the premature deaths and long-term effects on children’s development, caused by air pollution.The UNICEF study noted that both outdoor and indoor pollution had triggered a range of respiratory diseases that accounted for almost one in ten under-five deaths amongst children especially since they are more susceptible than adults to air pollution as their lungs,brains and immune systems are still developing and their respiratory tracks are more permeable than those of adults.

The latest GBD data has shown that the increasing deaths and adverse health impacts mean that India needs to adopt determined policies such as time-bound air quality targets under National and Regional Clean Air Action Plan and tougher enforcement of policies to cut down fossil fuel consumption, along with tackling other sectors responsible for higher air pollution levels in order to ensure citizens can breathe fresh and pure air.