The State of Global Air 2020 report, which was released on Wednesday, has two warnings for India. First, India recorded the highest annual average PM 2.5 concentration exposure in the world in 2019, and second, the country has had the worst levels of PM 2.5 levels in the world for the last decade. This runaway pollution is leading to a deleterious impact on the health of the people. In 2019, over 116,000 infants in India died within a month after birth due to exposure to severe air pollution, the report said. This finding is based on research that suggests exposure to polluted air during pregnancy is linked to low weight and premature birth. The report also suggested that long-term exposure to outdoor and household air pollution contributed to over 1.67 million annual deaths from stroke, heart attack, diabetes, lung cancer, chronic lung diseases, and neonatal diseases in India in 2019. Although the link between air pollution and Covid-19 is not yet fully proven, the report acknowledged that there is evidence linking air pollution with increased heart and lung disease. This means that exposure to high levels of air pollution during winter months could exacerbate the effects of the disease.
In the last few years, there has been increasing scientific evidence of the effect of air pollution on health, pushing the central and state governments — often with the prodding of the judiciary — to take a raft of measures to tackle the menace. For example, the Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR) has a Graded Response Action Plan since 2017, and there has been talk of implementing a regional “airshed management” plan to curb pollution in the city. The Delhi government is also experimenting with a new organic way of decomposing stubble with Indian Agriculture Research Institute’s “Pusa decomposer”.
Despite these efforts, the Delhi-NCR region’s pollution load has remained high. While one has to accept the city’s geographical location and its meteorological challenges, there are also several man-made factors (other than stubble burning) — vehicular emissions, construction dust, garbage burning — that can be controlled to ensure cleaner air. To do that, there has to be a holistic approach that pushes policy changes in Delhi and its neighboring states and overcomes the issue posed by the multiplicity of political interests. There must also be monitoring on a real-time basis as well as a strong push towards the behavioral change of citizens. There is no room for delay, for lives are at stake.