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Sunday, January 17, 2021

Government needs to hold big polluters liable for air pollution, preventable diseases, and untimely deaths

The global death rate attributable to air pollution exposure is 86 deaths per 100,000 people. Ninety-two per cent of the global population lives in places where air pollution levels are above the WHO guideline for healthy air.

Updated: January 1, 2021 9:23:35 pm
Air pollution, climate changeOf all the deaths caused by ischemic heart disease (the biggest killer on our planet), 20 per cent are caused by air pollution. Of all the deaths caused by lung cancer (deadliest of all cancers), 19 per cent are due to air pollution and 40 per cent of COPD deaths are because of air pollution.

Written By Sandeep Pandey, Shobha Shukla, and Bobby Ramakant

More than 16 lakh people died in India in 2019 because of air pollution, accounting for 17·8 per cent of the total deaths in the country according to The Lancet Planetary Health. Air pollution was the fourth leading risk factor for premature death globally, accounting for nearly 12 per cent of all deaths, with more than 6.67 million in 2019 alone, shows the State of Global Air Report 2020. Each of these deaths could have been averted — and every disease caused by air pollution could have been prevented.

Air pollution is the biggest environmental health crisis we face and the WHO has warned repeatedly that it is an invisible killer. The global death rate attributable to air pollution exposure is 86 deaths per 100,000 people. Ninety-two per cent of the global population lives in places where air pollution levels are above the WHO guideline for healthy air. As we write this article from Lucknow, the Air Quality Index here is hovering around 465 (WHO limit is 50).

Air pollution is fuelling epidemics. Of all the deaths caused by ischemic heart disease (the biggest killer on our planet), 20 per cent are caused by air pollution. Of all the deaths caused by lung cancer (deadliest of all cancers), 19 per cent are due to air pollution and 40 per cent of COPD deaths are because of air pollution. Asthma is another health condition which is seriously aggravated by air pollution. Also, let us not forget that other major common risk factors — tobacco and alcohol use — for these diseases are also preventable. Should not our governments hold Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol liable for the irreparable loss of human life and suffering it has caused?

More alarmingly, climate change and air pollution are closely interrelated, further escalating the economic costs and health hazards for humankind. Yet, it does not seem to be prodding governments to act with urgency. Air pollution warrants much more urgency to save lives and help people breathe life, and not inhale deadly disease-causing polluted air.

The Lancet Planetary Health published in December 2020 further states that lost output from premature deaths and morbidity attributable to air pollution accounted for economic losses of $28·8 billion (about Rs 2,13,451 crore) in India in 2019 alone. “The states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, with the highest economic loss as a percentage of their GDP, had the lowest per-capita GDP among the states of India, indicating that these poor states are most vulnerable to the adverse economic impacts of air pollution,” The Lancet report stated.

With overburdened and appallingly weak health systems in India, and with additional challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot afford multiple epidemics of preventable diseases. No one should suffer from any disease that is primarily preventable. Likewise, no one should die prematurely from these curable diseases.

The President of India has recently signed an ordinance — The Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and adjoining areas, 2020 — with a provision for a fine of Rs 1 crore and/or jail for 5 years for those violating air pollution norms. This ordinance has been brought in the background of the problem of stubble burning by farmers. However, industrial and vehicular pollution contributes to air pollution in the metropolis in a big way. But no government had thought of a strict law to check it. In fact, the history of Pollution Control Boards has been that of compromise on the issue of pollution in exchange for gratification by the industry. As a proof one has to merely observe the pollution levels in the water bodies situated next to industries or big cities.

We conveniently and squarely blame the poor for pollution. Ironically, the poor consume and pollute the least. It is us, the privileged people, who consume, abuse, and pollute our planet the most. Also, it is us, the privileged people (who live, consume, and pollute in an unsustainable manner) who are getting to decide the “sustainable development” model. So, dumping all blame for air pollution on farmers in the name of stubble-burning is not going to help anyone because we cannot have air purifiers everywhere and we, and our loved ones, need clean air to breathe and live.

Think: Who should be made to pay for these colossal health and economic losses caused by air pollution? Why should not governments recover the economic losses from corporations that have polluted our air? But if we look at past years, governments have diluted, watered down or weakened environmental safeguards for corporations, often in the garb of “ease of business” or the “urgency to reboot economy”.

It is the government’s primary responsibility to ensure all citizens breathe clean air. Governments also need to ensure that corporations do not engage in any activity that pollutes our planet and its health. They should hold those abusive corporations to account for the harm they have caused our planet and our health. Market-based solutions are not “solutions” but just another way for corporations to fill their coffers. So installing “air purifiers” is not the solution to resolve air pollution but stemming the source(s) of pollution and revamping the development model so that we stop polluting our air and planet.

Pandey is a Magsaysay awardee and national Vice President of Socialist Party (India). Shukla is  former senior faculty of Loreto Convent College and part of Asha Parivar, and Bobby Ramakant is with Socialist Party (India)

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