Air pollution has emerged as the second biggest cause of disease in India

India’s national strategy aims to reduce particulate matter emissions by as much as 30% from 2017 levels by 2024. There are currently 95 cities in 23 states and union territories that are classified as non-attainment cities, meaning they do not meet the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

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During the event, the doctors highlighted that air pollution is the major factor for the growing burden of chronic respiratory diseases in India, majorly attributed to stubble burning and vehicular pollution. (File)

By Dr. Soumitro Chakraborty

Over the last two decades, India’s air quality has deteriorated substantially as per the World Health Organization. Since the 1990s, and by 2017, nearly 97% of the country’s population has been exposed to harmful levels of ambient PM2.5. 1 As a result, air pollution-related mortality in India has increased 2.5-fold in the last two decades.

Air pollution is currently the second-leading cause of sickness in the country, accounting for 10% of the disease burden. During the Covid lockdown, India’s ambient air quality improved. Averaging across different regions of India, air quality indicated a 30–50% reduction in PM2.5, PM10, CO, and a maximum drop of 40–60% in NO2, with significant regional variability. Air pollution is predicted to grow again now that all restrictions have been lifted. Slow progress in tackling pollution risks adding to premature deaths of citizens.

This extends pressure on the nation’s economy from higher health expenditure and productivity losses. The India State-Level Disease Burden Initiative by the Public Health Foundation of India, published a scientific paper in December 2020 on the health and economic impact of air pollution in Lancet Planetary Health, documenting that the economic loss due to lost output from premature deaths and morbidity from air pollution was 1.4% of the GDP in India in 2019, equivalent to INR 260,000 crores (US$ 36.8 billion).

COVID-19 and Air Pollution

To prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, India enforced a state-wide shutdown beginning March 25, 2020. Except for essential services, all transportation services (road, air, and rail), schools, colleges, industrial operations, hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, and markets were suspended during the lockdown. The Central Pollution Control Board’s real-time National Air Quality Index (NAQI) and preliminary assessment of the NAQI revealed that air pollution in India had significantly decreased during the nationwide lockdown. However, since the opening of lockdown restrictions, the air quality has deteriorated.

Adding to the already harrowing situation is the scientific evidence where researchers have established a link between exposure to polluted air and COVID-19. As per Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi, Indian cities stand vulnerable to COVID-19 owing to long term exposure to bad quality air. According to a paper, ‘Regional and global contributions of air pollution to risk of death from COVID-19’ published in the journal Cardiovascular Research, chronic exposure to particulate matter in air is directly linked to an average 15% of COVID-19 related deaths globally.

The fight against air pollution

India’s national strategy aims to reduce particulate matter emissions by as much as 30% from 2017 levels by 2024. There are currently 95 cities in 23 states and union territories that are classified as non-attainment cities, meaning they do not meet the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. The government plans to develop city-specific action plans in these regions through which the National Clean Air Program (NCAP) will be implemented. With city-level Clean Air Plans (CAPs) targeted at reducing ambient Particulate Matter (PM) concentrations, the new mission, in conjunction with the National Clean Air Program (NCAP), is operating in 132 Indian cities.

Ambitious steps to execute pollution control methods that limit pollution under the CAPs can enable India’s fight against harmful air pollution and climate change and can provide revolutionary and long-term improvements for public health. The National Electric Mobility Mission Plan, the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and EV (FAME) plan, the vehicle scrappage policy, and charging infrastructure projects, among others, have all been implemented by the Indian government to promote cleaner automobiles. Several Indian states have enacted rules encouraging the use of Electric Vehicles (EVs). However, as proven by experiences in China, the United States, and other parts of the world, an extensive, accessible public charging infrastructure network is required to maintain a healthy EV market.

As per The Natural Resources Defense Council, a United States-based 501 non-profit international environmental advocacy group and based on an analysis done by the Government of India, EV sales in India would need to reach 30% for private cars, 70% for commercial automobiles (such as delivery vehicles, fleets, and taxis), 40% for buses, and 80% for two and three-wheelers by 2030 to meet the government’s electric mobility goals.

CSR initiatives are the key

The private sector can play an instrumental role through its CSR efforts to address the deteriorating air quality and assist in the fight against air pollution in India. Some businesses are attempting to address the environmental concern by converting rice straws – a harvesting leftover that contributes significantly to air pollution when burned – into raw material as part of a sustainably responsible endeavour. Corporations operating in the crop-burning zones can work with farm producer organisations to collect crop leftovers by purchasing agro-waste and using it as biomass fuel for manufacturing activities. Corporations can reduce their carbon footprint by adopting clean energy.

Increased adoption of solar energy-related infrastructure can address the twin concerns of air pollution and climate change. Businesses can successfully address the interconnected concerns of air pollution and climate change. For example, Cummins India Limited started the “Creating Oxygen Hubs” drive-in Pune, Maharashtra, as a major CSR initiative to enhance air quality. Cummins worked with a variety of NGOs, civic agencies, Maharashtra’s forest, and defence departments, and local volunteers to plant over 35,000 trees in the city over several phases.

The primary objective of new-age enterprises must be to promote sustainability. More public-private partnerships are needed now more than ever to use the experience of both sectors. The business and public sectors can work together to develop solutions that will help reduce pollution to a manageable level. Changes at the policy level are also required for sustainable growth in order to meet our COP26 pledge.

(The author is the CEO, of Fiinovation. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of

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First published on: 22-04-2022 at 15:26 IST