While Delhi managed to shrug-off the tag of the most polluted city in the latest WHO ranking on pollution levels, 34 Indian cities figured in the list of the 100 most polluted ones, and 22 Indian cities found their names among the top 50 most polluted in the world.
The report of high pollution levels of Indian cities comes at a time when the government has set an ambitious plan to build 100 smart cities across the country. Interestingly, out of the 100 cities that have been shortlisted to be built as smart cities, 17 of them figure in the 100 most polluted cities in the world. So, while use of technology, better modes of transportation, upgradation of civic amenities and improvement of the urban infrastructure will form a part of the smart city mission, the government and the municipal bodies will also have to focus on improving the air quality in those cities.
Even Raebareli and Varanasi —Parliamentary constituencies of Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi respectively — figure in the most polluted cities and occupy 52nd and 78th spot in the global ranking respectively.
Importantly, a majority of the most polluted cities in India are from the Western and Northern states. There is not a single city from the four Southern states in the list.
The rankings were based on the highest concentration of fine particulate matter of 2.5 micrometers (PM 2.5) and according to WHO, high concentrations of small and fine particulate pollution is linked to high number of deaths from heart disease and stroke, as well as respiratory illness and cancer.
To put the rankings and numbers in context, while the Annual mean, of PM 2.5 in (ug/m3) of New York and London is 9 and 15, that for Delhi is 122.
The statement issued by WHO said, “Measurement of fine particulate matter of 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter is considered to be the best indicator of the level of health risks from air pollution.” Indian cities account for one third of the100 most polluted cities in the world.
While the quality of air in Indian cities appears to be bad, the WHO report said that a look into time series data for cities shows that the situation of air quality in the same city has worsened over the previous years.
Attributing the reason for the rise in pollution levels within the cities, the report said, “Many factors contribute to this increase, including reliance on fossil fuels such as coal- fired power plants, dependence on private transport motor vehicles, inefficient use of energy in buildings, and the use of biomass for cooking and heating.” It further added that the air quality in most cities worldwide that monitor outdoor air pollution failed to meet WHO guidelines for safe levels and thereby puts people at additional risk of respiratory disease and other health problems.
The WHO’s urban air quality database covers 1,600 cities across 91 countries and the ranking was based on the annual mean pollution levels for the year 2012.
In April 2014, WHO issued new information estimating that outdoor air pollution was responsible for the deaths of some 3.7 million people under the age of 60 in 2012. The Organization also emphasised that indoor and outdoor air pollution combined are among the largest risks to health worldwide.