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EditorialsEditorial: Dubious distinction

Editorial: Dubious distinction

Published: 4th Sep 2021 12:00 am | Updated: 3rd Sep 2021 8:51 pm

It is a distinction that no country can be proud of. India has earned such a distinction: being the world’s most polluted nation. A recent study by an American research group has revealed stark numbers about how air pollution has turned out to be a major cause of deaths. Conducted by the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute, the study says that air pollution can reduce the life expectancy of Indians by nine years. The problem is particularly severe in the Indo-Gangetic plains. Another study by the medical journal Lancet noted that air pollution was responsible for an estimated 1.67 million deaths in 2019, accounting for 17.8% of all deaths. India has lost 1.4% of its GDP due to premature deaths and morbidity from air pollution. This is equivalent to Rs 2.60 lakh crore — more than four times the allocation for healthcare in the Union Budget for 2020-21. The University of Chicago study points out that because of the effective policy interventions China has succeeded in significantly reducing air pollution. The 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 by 2024.

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In 2019, India’s average particulate matter concentration was 70.3 microgram per cubic metre (µg/m3), the highest in the world and seven times the World Health Organization’s guideline of 10 µg/m3. Diseases attributable to air pollution adversely affect economic growth through reduced productivity, decreased labour supply, rise in healthcare expenditures and lost welfare. The anti-pollution measures being implemented by the Centre and State governments are not enough to tackle the seriousness of the problem at hand. There is an urgent need to step up investments in State-specific air pollution control strategies to improve population health. Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan consistently rank among the top five most polluted countries in the world and the average life expectancy across these four countries would be 5.6 years higher if pollution concentrations complied with the WHO guidelines. Apart from vehicular emissions and power generation from fossil fuels, crop burning, brick kilns and other industrial activities have contributed to rising particulates in the region. In the last two decades, the death rate from outdoor ambient air pollution has increased by 115%. Another recent report — the State of Global Air 2020 — has put India on top of the world in terms of annual average exposure to PM 2.5 (particulate matter of 2.5 micrometre diameter) pollutants.

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