A WHO study released earlier this week confirmed that the air quality in India’s capital is among the worst in the world — indeed, it found Delhi’s air to have the highest concentration of fine particulate matter, PM 2.5, which can deeply penetrate the lungs and contribute to asthma, cancer and heart trouble. Other Indian urban centres also throng the list; 13 of the dirtiest 20 cities are Indian. This follows on the heels of the annual Yale Environmental Performance Index, which ranked India 174 out of 178 countries in air quality in January. Before that, a 2013 World Bank report surveyed 132 countries and rated India worst on air pollution. Clearly, India’s air pollution problem has hit crisis levels.
But rather than acknowledging these reports as flagging a dire public health challenge, the government’s response now, as then, has been to question the methodology of the study and quibble over whether it adequately captures the levels of Beijing’s air pollution. An official from the Central Pollution Control Board offered the defence that Delhi’s air is “not as dangerous as projected” in the WHO report. This is consistent with the tendency of officials to bristle at research drawing unfavourable comparisons between the two cities, even though Beijing’s “airpocalypse” has prompted public health warnings that have been largely absent in Delhi. While it is true that measurement of small particulates offers only a snapshot of ambient air quality at a given moment and some of the worst offenders put out unreliable data, the government’s preoccupation with besting Beijing elides the alarming regularity with which the dangerous levels of air pollution in Indian cities is highlighted. Such wilful inattention is bound to have terrible health consequences — one study suggests that air pollution is already the fifth-largest killer in India and another estimates a dramatic loss of 3.3 years from life expectancy at birth.
The microscopic particulates blighting urban air are attributable to a combination of industrial, vehicular and environmental factors, which implies that any policy on air pollution must be coordinated across sectors to be effective. If the national agenda on air pollution has been a non-starter for years, it is in no small part due to the ideological posturing that the environment ministry has become the platform for, creating a self-defeating either-or confrontation between ecological concerns and growth.
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