Shankkar Aiyar News

Air pollution: two deaths per minute and politicos in denial 

This month, India was informed by two different studies that air pollution is causing pre-mature deaths across India. A study, by The Lancet, states that over a million Indians— or two Indians every m

Published: 26th February 2017 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th February 2017 07:12 AM   |  A+A-

This month, India was informed by two different studies that air pollution is causing pre-mature deaths across India. A study, by The Lancet, states that over a million Indians— or two Indians every minute—die every year due to air pollution, and some of the worst-polluted cities of the world are in India.

Another study, by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, ascribes the cause of a million deaths in 2015 to breathing toxic air.

How did the government respond to the latest studies? Anil Madhav Dave, Minister for Environment and Climate Change, said, Indians “seem to be far more influenced by things out of India”, and added, “We have several of our own organisations and experts… and I trust them as much as I do our Army”. Dave said the government would get its own study done to assess the health impacts of air pollution.

He also put the onus of mitigation on the states. For the record, there was Indian involvement in the studies. According to Katherine Walker, Principal Scientist, Health Effects Institute (HEI), several Indian scientists contributed to the estimates for GBD 2015, including Kalpana Balakrishnan (Sri Ramachandra University, Chennai), Lalit Dandona and Rakhi Dandona (Public Health Foundation of India).

Findings were based on data from Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) along with satellite-based estimates. Arguably, there could be a case for indigenous validation of findings. Moot point is, what is it that needs validation—for instance, is there a need to validate the fact that pollution claims lives.

The co-relation between pollution and morbidity is established by studies sponsored by the Government of India. Epidemiological studies, sponsored by CPCB and conducted by Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute in Kolkata, indicated “pulmonary and systemic changes, altered immunity and damage to chromosomes and DNA and other health impairments associated with cumulative exposure to high level of particulate pollution that increases the risk of various diseases”.

A 2006 study, by Vallabhai Patel Chest Institute, covering 5,900 adults in Delhi, found 11.69 per cent suffering from rhinitis and 11.03 per cent from asthma. It is not the first time studies have raised an alarm over the quality of air—or the consequence of loss of lives.

It is also not the first time the findings have been disputed. In September 2016, a WHO study revealed that severe air pollution caused premature deaths of 6,21,138 persons—that is, 70 persons every hour. In 2015, a Max Planck Institute study by Johannes Lelieveld stated that air pollution caused premature mortality of over 6.5 lakh lives. In 2013, the HEI stated that pollution contributed to premature loss of 6.2 lakh lives. On every occasion, the government of the day contested the findings.

To appreciate the saga, consider the response of governments in Parliament for nearly two decades.

● In 2017, MP Sanjay Raut asked if it is true that air pollution claims nearly 12 lakh lives. To this, Dave replied: “There are no conclusive data available in the country to establish direct co-relationship of death exclusively with air pollution.”

● In 2015, Pankaj Chaudhary cited a government-sponsored survey which found every third schoolchild suffering from lungs infection. Prakash Javadekar, then Environment Minister, said, “Results are indicative rather than conclusive because health effects of air pollution depend on various factors…”

● In 2013, Maya Singh asked about a HEI study which said pollution claimed 6.2 lakh lives every year. Jayanti Natarajan, then Environment Minister, said, “No data is available regarding persons suffering from respiratory disorders caused due to pollution.”

● In 2010, Kaptan Singh Solanki asked about a TERI report which said eight lakh people die every year due to polluted air and water. Jairam Ramesh, then Environment Minister, said, “Mortality figures were based on review of theoretical literature. There is no conclusive study to establish co-relationship.”

● In 2006, Chandrakant Khaire asked about studies on the rising toll of deaths caused by air pollution. A Raja, then Environment Minister, said, “Studies by institutions on pollution and health effects provide no conclusive scientific evidence to establish cause-effect relationship.”

● In 2001, Janeshwar Mishra asked if it was a fact that about 10 lakh people die every year due to degradation of environment. T R Baalu, then Environment Minister, said, “There have been some reports on premature deaths due to pollution. However, there is no conclusive data available.”

● In 1998, K K Birla asked about a CSE study which said afflictions caused by air pollution claimed 52,000 deaths in 36 cities. Babulal Marandi, then Environment Minister, said, “The estimation is not based on actual figures and there is no conclusive scientific data to confirm these figures.”

It is now nearly two decades since governments began disputing inferences and sought refuge under the need for scientific validation—and into the ghetto of denial. Pollution impacts life and livelihood as also the economy. In December 2016, MoS for Health, Anupriya Patel revealed that a World Bank report put “the cost of serious health consequences from Particulate Matter pollution at around 3 per cent of India’s GDP and the total damage because of environmental degradation to `3.75 trillion, equivalent to 5.7 per cent of the country’s GDP.”

It could be argued that extrapolation of data can result in overestimation. One approach would be to invest in monitoring air quality on ground and fund ISRO to expand mission NEMO-AM to scan the quality of air Indians breathe.

That should end the tyranny of the argumentative approach. India can scarcely afford to live in denial—about the scale of indoor pollution, of rising auto pollution in urban India caused by lack of mass transport facilities, of aggravation caused by burning of agri-waste, of polluted lakes catching fire, of construction debris spewing dust or about the fact that barely a fifth of the 1.5-lakh tonnes of waste generated every day gets treated.

The magnitude of the crisis is apparent in everyday images—of school children wearing air-filter masks, of women on two-wheelers swathed in layers of protective clothing.

The consequence of rising pollution is also visible in sales figures of air purifiers, listing of respirators on e-commerce sites and rising use of pumps and nasal inhalers— as also in data on rising incidence of cardiovascular diseases, asthma and other respiratory disorders.

Pollution is a 365-day crisis that impacts Indians and India. The first step towards resolution is acknowledgement of the problem in all its magnitude. shankkar.aiyar@gmail.com

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