Editorial: Health catastrophe

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The steady deterioration in the air quality of several Indian cities calls for radical long-term steps to arrest the tide.

Published Date – 20 March 2024, 11:45 PM


Editorial: Health catastrophe

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It’s an urgent wake-up call that the policy makers can ill-afford to ignore. India has now earned the dubious distinction of being the world’s third most polluted country — after Bangladesh and Pakistan— and, more alarmingly, 83 of the 100 most polluted cities of the world are in India. New Delhi takes the cake for being the world’s worst polluted capital city, the fifth time in the last six years. The latest World Air Quality Report, based on data compiled by the Swiss firm IQAir from134 countries, must ring alarm bells in South Asia, particularly India where 96% of the population live with air quality seven times higher than the guidelines prescribed by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The seriousness of the issue can be gauged from the fact that the PM2.5 (Particulate Matter of 2.5 micrometer diameter) level — the measure of air pollution — in the national capital was found to be 93 micrograms per cubic meter as against the WHO norm of 5 micrograms per cubic meter. Ten out of the top 11 most polluted cities in the world are from India, the other being Lahore in Pakistan. Air pollution remains a global health catastrophe, accounting for about eight million deaths annually. Fossil fuel emissions account for 65% of global carbon dioxide emissions and are also the primary cause of the majority of pollution related deaths. The human-caused climate crisis, driven by the burning of fossil fuels, plays a pivotal role in spiking air pollution levels.

The latest IQAir report exposes the failures in monitoring air pollution and taking effective measures to check it. There is an urgent need for multi-sector action across all regions under the National Clean Air Programme for a time-bound reduction in pollution levels. Year after year, ominous signals emanate from these surveys, bracketing Indian cities among the most polluted in the world, but it is again back to business as usual for policymakers. The steady deterioration in the air quality of several Indian cities calls for radical long-term steps to arrest the tide. Though the Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM) in the National Capital Region is tasked with devising and executing plans to prevent and control air pollution in the region, the enforcement leaves a lot to be desired. Among the major factors that cause a deterioration in air quality in the NCR are stubble burning, diesel vehicles, construction work and coal-fired power plants. High pollution levels lead to a disastrous impact not just on public health but also on the country’s economy. Lung diseases caused by air pollution accounted for the highest share — 36.6%— in the total economic losses, according to a study conducted by the interdisciplinary journal ‘Lancet Planetary Health.’ If corrective steps are not taken, the deteriorating pollution could impede India’s ambitious goal to become a $5-trillion economy.


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