Pressure mounts on India to tackle air pollution that now rivals China’s

A woman covers her mouth with a handkerchief while walking through the streets of Ahmedabad, India. Many pedestrians and cyclists wear some type of cloth over their mouth and nose to filter out smog. (Credit: Jill Ryan / WBUR / Flickr)

India’s ministers may not be able to deny the health impact of air pollution much longer. According to the first annual State of Global Air report published Tuesday, the number of premature deaths attributable to India’s air pollution now rivals China’s. Together, they account for more than half of the world’s pollution deaths.

Unlike China, where strict policies to curb emissions have steadied the death toll, India’s slower response resulted in a sharp rise in pollution-related deaths. Both countries accounted for about 1.1 million deaths in 2015, according to the report – the latest Global Burden of Disease study by the Health Effect Institute (HEI) and Seattle’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).

However, premature deaths due to PM2.5 pollutants in China have increased by 17 percent since 1990. In India, on the other hand, it has increased by 48 percent. 

An even more shocking comparison is the increase in premature deaths due to ozone. While the death toll has remained steady in China since 1990, India’s count has increased 148 percent in the same time period. On that front, India’s death toll already surpassed China’s.

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“India cannot afford to remain complacent or on (sic) denial any more,” Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director  of research and advocacy at the Center for Science and Environment, said in a press release. “With so many people dying early or falling ill and losing productive years due to particulate and ozone pollution, it is a state of health emergency.”

Whether India’s responsible agencies agree remains to be seen.

“There is no conclusive data available in the country to establish direct correlationship (sic) of death exclusively with air pollution,” Environment Minister Anil Madhav Dave wrote the upper house of parliament last week in response to a January Greenpeace report that revealed the extent of air pollution in India.

“Health effects of air pollution are synergistic manifestation of factors which include food habits, occupational habits, socio-economic status, medical history, immunity, heredity etc. of the individuals. Air pollution could be one of the triggering factors for respiratory associated ailments and diseases,” he said.

According to India’s Health Minister Jagat Prakash Nadda, his ministry’s ability to tackle the issue depends heavily on the environment ministry’s cooperation.

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“We are working on it,” he told reporters today, according to Press Trust of India. “Until we have coordination and work together, we will not be able to address this.”

Although, India has taken steps to curb air pollution, Dave and Nadda’s comments reveal a lack of urgency like China has displayed in recent years.

“[India] has got a longer way to go,” HEI President Dan Greenbaum told Reuters.

But the problem of air pollution is not limited to India and China. According to Tuesday’s report, 92 percent of the world’s population lives in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution. And although the U.S. and Europe have made great strides in reducing people’s exposure to air pollutants, 88,000 Americans and 258,000 Europeans still face increased risks of premature death from air pollutants.

“The Global Burden of Disease leads a growing worldwide consensus – among the WHO, World Bank, International Energy Agency and others – that air pollution poses a major global public health challenges,” Bob O’Keefe, vice-president of HEI, said in a press release. “Nowhere is that risk more evident than in the rapidly growing economies of Asia.”

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.