Business Standard

All that breathes

Air pollution is absent from the political agenda


India’s proud record as one of the world’s fastest-growing large economies is being overtaken by its reputation as one of the world’s most polluted countries. According to the World Air Quality Report, by Swiss organisati­on IQAIR, India ranks as the world’s third-most polluted country — behind only Bangladesh and Pakistan. The ranking is based on the concentrat­ion in the air of particulat­e matter of 2.5 microns (1 micron is one-thousandth of 1 mm) or less in diameter (PM2.5), which is associated with lung and heart diseases, cancer, and a high incidence of early deaths. India recorded an annual average PM2.5 concentrat­ion of 54.4 micrograms (1 microgram is one-thousandth of 1 mg) per cubic metre in 2023, which looks good only behind Bangladesh’s 79.9 micrograms per cubic metre and Pakistan’s 73.7 micrograms per cubic metre. The striking point about India’s rank is that it has sped up from number eight in 2022. Also noteworthy is the fact that, unlike the other two countries, India’s PM2.5 concentrat­ion has actually fallen since 2021, when it was 58.1 micrograms per cubic metre. Still, 42 of the 50 most polluted cities in the world are in India, with Delhi featuring as the world’s most polluted capital for the second year running, and the record worsening since 2022.

This data would come as no surprise to those who live in urban India and are forced to make frequent medical visits on account of breathing problems and live with the permanent haze over urban skies. The IQAIR report flags that 1.36 billion Indians — just short of the entire population — are subject to PM2.5 concentrat­ion way beyond the World Health Organizati­on-recommende­d annual guideline of 5 micrograms per cubic metre. Topping this list is Begusarai in Bihar. This city did not figure on the 2022 list but records an annual average PM2.5 concentrat­ion of 118 micrograms per cubic metre. Guwahati has seen its PM2.5 concentrat­ion double over 2022. Given that burning fossil fuels is the chief source of PM2.5, India’s poor air quality shows the inadequacy of efforts to transition to renewable energy, and reflects the challenge going forward as economic growth gathers momentum. Thermal power still accounts for 70 per cent of the country’s electricit­y generation. Massive projects such as the recently announced rooftop solar project have the potential to be a game changer but only with significan­t changes in power policies. At the same time, Delhi’s lead role in the air pollution charts points to the inability to find a viable policy approach to stubble burning each kharif harvest, a recent trend linked to legacy agri-policies.

As it has done each year, Iqair’s latest report underlines the depth of India’s pollution problem and the urgency to find sustainabl­e solutions way ahead of a distant zero-emission target by 2070. The remarkable aspect of this endemic crisis is that it appears to be missing from the policymake­rs’ radar in recent years. More unusually, pollution is conspicuou­s by its absence as a political issue. No political party offers an agenda to reduce pollution, nor does the concept of the right to clean air figure in the election manifesto of any major political party. Yet, the costs to the economy are significan­t. According to the World Bank, the economic loss from pollution-related premature deaths and morbidity is about $37 billion (2019). Clearly, the need for policy action has never been more urgent.

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