Pollution kills more people in India than anywhere else in the world

Just another 500 AQI day.
Just another 500 AQI day.
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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In 2015, a staggering 2.5 million Indians died due to non-communicable diseases, including strokes and lung cancer, caused by pollution, according to a report by The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, published on Oct. 19. China recorded 1.8 million such deaths in the same period.

Together, the two countries accounted for nearly 48% of the worldwide total of 9 million. The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health based its findings on data from the Global Burden of Disease study.

Air pollution is by far the biggest culprit around the world, followed by polluted water. The greatest impact is occurring in rapidly developing and industrialising countries, the report says.

In India, where cities such as New Delhi routinely rank among the world’s most polluted, nearly a quarter of all deaths in 2015 were caused by pollution-related illnesses. If anything, the burden of pollution-related diseases and deaths is likely to be underestimated, the report adds, given that so many emerging chemical pollutants are yet to be identified.

Interestingly, the report comes at a time when air pollution levels in India tend to spike following the festival of Diwali, which involves massive celebratory fireworks, adding to the already high levels of particulate matter. Last year, in New Delhi, firecracker smoke combined with vehicular pollution, coal plant emissions, and fumes from burning crops in neighbouring states to produce a blanket of smog that lingered for days after the celebrations.

Fearing a repeat, India’s supreme court banned the sale of firecrackers in the national capital region this festive season. However, it didn’t help the air quality, with several areas recording alarmingly high levels of particulate matter. Other Indian cities like Chennai, too, witnessed a similar situation following the festivities.

But even on regular days, pollution in many Indian cities far exceeds the World Health Organisation-recommended limits. And while there are encouraging signs that the Indian government is taking the problem seriously, committing to renewable energy and electric vehicles, the continued use of dirty fuels and the ever-rising count of diesel vehicles are hindering real progress.