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Climate Change Tracker: Running on fumes

While Diwali turns many Indian cities unliveable, air pollution levels across the country are hazardous all year round

Every year, Diwali turns cities like Delhi unliveable.
Every year, Diwali turns cities like Delhi unliveable. (Getty Images)

One of India’s key pledges at the Paris Agreement of 2015 was to reduce the economy’s energy intensity and the share of fossil fuels in electricity generation. The fact that this is to happen while the country urbanizes on an unprecedented scale—some 400 million more people will be living in Indian cities by 2050, according to the UN department of economic and social affairs—makes India a unique development case study. In light of the fact that most urban infrastructure in the country is yet to be built, how livable are India’s cities? Take air quality, for example. According to a March report by the organization Greenpeace, 22 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities are in India, all of them in north India. For example, Delhi’s average concentration of the pollutant PM 2.5 was 113.5 for 2018, which is hazardous (the safe limit is 60, according to National Ambient Air Quality Standards).

The conversation inevitably veers towards air quality around the time that Diwali rolls around. In places like Delhi, already buffeted with toxic smoke from crop stubble being burnt in neighbouring states like Haryana and Punjab, the injection of poisonous smoke from exploding crackers turns the city air hazardous. The thing is, the terrible air never really goes away even when blue skies reappear.

According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) 2018 publication, Air Pollution And Child Health: Prescribing Clean Air, India has the highest number of premature deaths of children under the age of 5 due to toxic air. A report prepared by the organization Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in June, At The Crossroads, found that as of 2017, 79% of Indian cities had critical levels of the pollutant PM 10, a 19% jump from 2007. The WHO-prescribed PM 10 level is 20 microgram per cubic metre (ug/m3). According to the report, cities such as Delhi, Lucknow, Varanasi and Mumbai need to reduce PM 10 levels by as much as 76%, 71%, 72% and 52%, respectively, for the cities to have breathable air.

Nor is this just a north Indian problem. A 2017 report on the impact of air pollution on deaths and life expectancy in India, jointly prepared by the Indian Council of Medical Research, Public Health Foundation of India and Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, presents some interesting data. Among states with a high socio-demographic index (i.e. richer states), Kerala, where the air is six times less polluted than Delhi’s, the risk of death per 100,000 population due to air pollution is still higher than Delhi.

So while Diwali celebrations top up the toxic air quota of every Indian city, the inherent problems of hazardous air quality go much deeper. As far as health risks go, air pollution is the third biggest killer in India, and the life expectancy of South Asians has reduced by over 2.6 years, according to the US-based Health Effects Institute’s (HEI’s) State Of Global Air 2019 report. So yes, don’t burst crackers and breathe easier. But if India’s air is to be clean, air pollution needs to be tackled seriously, beyond Diwali and crackers.

Why is the climate change threat to bees and amphibians bad news for all of us? We discuss this in next week’s column. Follow the series with #MintClimateTracker

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