The average Indian will lose more than nine years of his/her life if air pollution levels continue to remain at 2019 levels, according to a new report by The Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC).
India is now the most polluted country in the world, with more than 480 million people or about 40 percent of the country's population — living in the Indo-Gangetic plains of Northern India (Bihar, Chandigarh, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal), where pollution levels often exceed those found anywhere else in the world.
The data is distressing, air pollution is shortening lives by 9.7 years in Delhi and 9.5 years in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most polluted states!
While the quality of air in India's north remains toxic, the menace now seems to have spread wider and the situation is 'alarming'. For example, the average citizen in states like Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh is now losing an additional 2.5 to 2.9 years of life expectancy, relative to early 2000, EPIC said.
The World Health Organisation's guidelines stipulate that PM 2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter) not exceed 10 micron per cubic metre and that PM 10 (particulate matter less than 10 microns in diameter) not exceed 20 micron per cubic metre.
In India, the average PM 2.5 concentration in 2019 was 70 micron per cubic metre, the highest in the world and 7 times the WHO's guideline. Air pollution shortens average Indian life expectancy by 5.9 years, relative to what it would be if the WHO guideline was met, estimates the EPIC study.
Working unseen inside the human body, particulate pollution has a more devastating impact on life expectancy than communicable diseases like tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, behavioural killers like cigarette smoking, and even war.
Here’s what the report says on India:
South Asia's Toxic Air
South Asia is home to the most polluted countries on the planet and prolonged exposure to air pollution is going to reduce life expectancy by 5.6 years if current levels persist, the report says. Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan account for nearly a quarter of the global population and consistently rank among the top five most polluted countries in the world.
The increase in South Asian air pollution over time is not surprising as in the last two decades, industrialization, economic development, and population growth have led to skyrocketing energy demand and fossil fuel use across the region.
The Policy Push
The importance of government policy to respond to this menace is not understated. China remains the model for policy that led to sharp reductions in pollution. Since the country began its "war against pollution" in 2013, China has reduced its particulate pollution by 29 percent—making up three-quarters of the reductions in air pollution across the world. As a result, China’s people have added about 1.5 years onto their lives, assuming these reductions are sustained, the report said.
"The bad news is that the greatest impacts of air pollution remain concentrated in South Asia. The good news is that governments in this region are recognizing the severity of the problem and are now beginning to respond,” said Ken Lee, the director of the AQLI.
In 2019, India launched National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) calling it a war on air pollution. The Programme aims to cut particulate pollution by 20-30 percent relative to 2017 levels by 2024. The EPIC study estimates that though the NCAP’s goals are non-binding, if India does achieve and sustain this reduction, it would lead to remarkable health improvements: a nationwide reduction of 25 percent, the midpoint of the NCAP’s target, would increase India’s national life expectancy by 1.8 years, and by 3.5 years for residents.
First Published: IST