Air pollution in India cutting 660 million lives short by 3 years

A study published in the ‘Economic & Political Weekly’ shows 13 Indian cities are on WHO list of the 20 most polluted


Study underlines the hidden costs of the India’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels to power its economic growth with little regard for the environment. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Study underlines the hidden costs of the India’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels to power its economic growth with little regard for the environment. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

New Delhi: The life of 660 million Indians, about half of the country’s total population, is being cut short by around three years due to severely polluted air, said a new study released on Saturday, that underlines the hidden costs of the country’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels to power its economic growth with little regard for the environment.

The study, led by Michael Greenstone of the University of Chicago and involving environmental economists from Harvard and Yale universities, also said too many Indians today are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution that are shortening lives and holding back the Indian economy. It estimates that 99.5% of India’s 1.2 billion people are breathing in pollution levels above what the WHO deems as safe.

While New Delhi last year earned the dubious title of being the world’s most polluted city, India’s air pollution problem is extensive, with 13 Indian cities now on the World Health Organization’s list of the 20 most polluted.

The study published in the Economic & Political Weekly (EPW) also said bringing all regions of India into compliance with environmental standards, “would increase the life expectancy of the 660 million people living in these areas by 3.2 years on average”. The average life expectancy gains, as per the study, range from 1.1 to 5.7 years.

“The extent of the problem is actually much larger than what we normally understand,” said one of the study’s co-authors, Anant Sudarshan, the India director of the Energy Policy Institute of Chicago. “We think of it as an urban problem, but the rural dimension has been ignored.”

On question of whether, “cleaner air is incompatible with India’s urgent need for economic growth”, the study said cleaner air comes with costs and there substantial benefits in terms of longer lives.

“The people who live longer would be available to contribute to India’s economy for more years, beyond the meaningfulness to them and their families of a longer life. Further, it hardly seems far-fetched to assume that cleaner air makes all the more productive due to reduced rates of sickness,” the study added.

While “the conventional definition of growth has ignored the health consequences of air pollution, this study demonstrates that air pollution retards growth by causing people to die prematurely,” Greenstone said in a statement.

“A variety of effective policy solutions are available that would efficiently reduce this scourge. There is an opportunity to choose longer, healthier, and more productive lives for hundreds of millions of Indians,” the study further said.

It also suggested that India needs to restructure environmental law and regulation around civil, rather than criminal, penalties.

“India’s flagship environmental laws, the air and water Acts, are built on an outdated criminal system where draconian penalties such as imprisonment or industry closure are the main recourse available to regulators. These penalties are so severe that they are seldom used, and typically reserved for the very worst polluters,” said the study.

It further said that thus it would be, “better to set civil penalties, in accord with the widely-recognized polluter pays principle, so that all industries and other pollution sources have steady, uniformly applied and significant incentives to reduce their pollution output”.

“Today, too many Indians are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution that are shortening lives and holding back the Indian economy. A variety of effective policy solutions are available that would efficiently reduce this scourge. There is an opportunity to choose longer, healthier, and more productive lives for hundreds of millions of Indians,” the study explained.

AP contributed to this story.

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