The Government’s policymakers and the citizens of Delhi must come together to reduce carbon emissions and ensure a cleaner, healthier future
As winter has slowly started descending upon India’s Capital City, New Delhi is once again in the news and engulfed in the perilous grip of air pollution, topping a real-time list on November 3, 2023, as the world's most polluted cities compiled by Swiss group IQAir which put India's capital's AQI at 611 in the 'hazardous' category. There is no respite as of now. The Delhi Government ordered the suspension of classes for primary students to keep this vulnerable section indoors. Further, a ban has been imposed on non-essential construction activities, and on the plying of BS-3 petrol and BS-4 diesel cars in Delhi, Gurugram, Faridabad, Ghaziabad, and Gautam Buddh Nagar.
“Unfavourable meteorological conditions, a sudden increase in the farm fire incidents – exacerbated by the burning of crop stubble in the states of Punjab and Haryana – and north-westerly winds moving the pollutants to Delhi are the major causes for the sudden spike in AQI,” the region’s Commission for Air Quality Management said on November 1.
Things are not that good. The dip in air quality in this part of the country during the winter months is often accompanied by a spike in respiratory illnesses. Health experts, including Dr Nikhil Modi, Senior Consultant in Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine at Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, underscore the challenges faced by individuals with asthma globally. With approximately 339 million people suffering from asthma worldwide, a number expected to reach 400 million by 2025, the urgency of addressing factors that lead to respiratory conditions cannot be overstated. Dr. Modi emphasizes the link between air pollution, extreme heat, all consequences of climate change, and the escalation of asthma symptoms, leading to potentially life-threatening situations.
In an interview with Al Jazeera last year, Dr Randeep Guleria, a pulmonologist and former head of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi, said that the city’s poor air quality was an issue, especially for vulnerable residents. He said, “When air quality is poor, it is infecting the vulnerable population – the younger children, the elderly, and those with co-morbidities, chronic respiratory disease or chronic cardiac problems. In children, it can also lead to a decrease in lung growth. As the child grows in this environment, the growth of the lung gets hampered”.
Al Jazeera further reports in one of its articles on August 29, 2023, that rising air pollution can cut life expectancy by more than five years per person in South Asia, one of the world’s most polluted regions. This has been published in the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute (EPIC) report on the “Air Quality Life Index”, which mentions that the world’s most polluted countries such as Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan, account for more than half of the total life years lost globally to pollution.
The report further alarmingly points out that ‘India is responsible for about 59 percent of the world’s increase in pollution since 2013 and that hazardous air threatens to shorten lives further in some of the country’s more polluted regions. In the densely populated areas in Delhi, the world’s most polluted megacity, the average life span is down by more than 10 years.’
Experts further emphasize the intricate connection between climate change and air pollution. Greenhouse gas emissions, stemming from activities such as burning fossil fuels, industrial processes, and transportation, contribute not only to global warming but also to air pollution. Health specialists further highlight the dangerous cocktail of pollutants, including nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, ozone, and particulate matter, which pose severe threats to respiratory health, especially in areas like Delhi.
Another report suggests that air pollution is identified as the primary culprit behind an estimated 1.5 million deaths annually in India. During the summer months the city experiences hazardous air quality levels, with Particulate Matter (PM) concentrations reaching up to 20 times, the WHO's safe limit. The winter months further escalate this issue, creating an environment where respiratory health is compromised.
Lowering worldwide concentrations of harmful airborne particles, specifically PM 2.5, to meet the World Health Organization's (WHO) recommended levels can extend the average life expectancy by 2.3 years. According to the EPIC Report, this translates to a cumulative gain of 17.8 billion life years.
Climate change is not an isolated occurrence but a result of human activities. The exploitation of natural resources, apathetic attitudes toward environmental conservation, and the burning of fossil fuels to emit greenhouse gases are responsible for this chaos and disruption of ecosystems, reducing biodiversity, and affecting food production and water availability.
Efforts to achieve cleaner air involve a combination of regulatory measures, technological advancements, and changes in energy and transportation systems to reduce emissions. Such initiatives are crucial for addressing not only the immediate health effects of air pollution but also the long-term impact on life expectancy and quality of life.
According to an independent analysis prepared by Gary Fuller, Stav Friedman and Ian Mudway, the Environmental Research Group of Imperial College London, titled, “Impacts of air pollution across the life course – evidence highlight note” " air pollution impacts every stage of human life from foetal development and the cognitive abilities of teenagers to adult mental health. The report synthesizes the findings of more than 35,000 studies from around the world. Their team looked at findings from the World Health Organization (WHO), the UK Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution, the Royal College of Physicians, the Health Effects Institute and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
“The most important new finding is evidence related to both the impact of air pollution on brain health, including mental health and dementia, and early life impacts that could lead to future health burdens within the population,” the report said. “Both represent significant, but currently unquantified costs to society and the economy,” it added.
The review found links between air pollution and the health of newborns in the first weeks of life, birth weight, miscarriages and stillbirths, affecting the foetus directly.
Further, research on 2,000 children aged eight and nine, found that “On an average, a child had lost around 5 per cent of their expected lung volume because of the air pollution that they breathed… “This effect was most clearly linked with exposure to NO2 (nitrogen oxide), which is often used as a tracer for diesel exhaust emissions,” their report said.
While schools will open up and children – and adults – will be exposed to this poison in the air, enhanced efforts towards preventing air pollution must be prioritized. As the city grapples with worsening conditions, health leaders, policymakers, and individuals must unite to prioritise sustainable practices, reduce carbon emissions, and ensure a cleaner, healthier future.
The call to action is clear: it is now or never.
(The writer is a programme executive, Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, views are personal)