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Public focus shifts from air pollution amidst demonetisation controversy

Congestion in Delhi;, a major contributor to the city's air pollution problem (By NOMAD [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)
Congestion in Delhi;, a major contributor to the city’s air pollution problem (By NOMAD [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)
It is no secret that India has experienced an industrial revolution in the last few decades. This has allowed the country to become an economic powerhouse taking seventh place in terms of global economic ranking. However, this increased industrial activity has had the drawback of a significant rise in air pollution. As a consequence, a number of Indian cities rank amongst the world’s top 20 for pollution. These included India’s two most populous cities, Mumbai and Delhi.

The World Bank Development Research Group (DECRG) conducted studies during the early 1990’s, which indicated the average total suspended particulate (TSP) level in Delhi was five-times the World Health Organization’s (WHO) annual average standard. This situation has failed to show any improvement in recent times. Measurements from November 2016 in the Mandir Marg area of Delhi showing a PM 2.5 level (fine particle matter) of 207. By comparison, the US environmental protection agency (EPA) lists a value of 0-50 to represent good quality air, with 31-60 being a satisfactory range and 61-90 as showing moderate levels of pollution. In densely populated areas such as Delhi, this presents itself as a substantial public health emergency, in terms of both long and short term effects on health and mortality.

The medical effects of this pollution are varied. Long terms effects include damage done to the environment and effects on food supplies. Most notable, perhaps, is the direct effect upon the respiratory system.

When considering that the local population is exposed to levels of pollution considered dangerous by the WHO for the entirety of their daily lives it is unsurprising that respiratory diseases will become more ever more commonplace. Studies by the Central Pollution Control Board in 2008, using a control population from western Bengal as a comparison point, found that residents of Delhi were 1.7 times more likely to have suffered respiratory issues in the past 3 months than their rural counterparts. Some investigations have suggested there is a significant correlation between high levels of pollution and premature deaths; figures from some research groups indicate that 54.5% of premature deaths can be attributed to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

This environmental and public health crisis had taken centre stage in public policy until recently, with attempts underway and large public backing to reduce emissions over a long term period. For example, India’s supreme court has stepped in to encourage the reduction of pollution. However, with the recent demonetisation of Rs500 and Rs1000 notes, public and media attention has shifted. That this has become a more pressing matter to the public can already be observed, with deaths already associated with the stampede to exchange currencies at banks due to long waiting times or suicides related to failed attempts at depositing money.

In the short term, this may be of more importance to the public due to economic risks. Viewing the broader picture, with the WHO’s verdict that 600,000 deaths in India in 2012 were associated with air pollution, this may not be a matter that can be put on the backburner for long.

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