Delhi air is the most polluted in the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), but this “shocking reminder” does not seem to worry the country’s political leadership as public health remains a low priority for both the government and lawmakers, say health and environmental experts.
“Every other day, I am suffering from cough and allergic reactions, thanks to this polluted air,” sighs Rajani Malhotra, an asthma patient.
Malhotra, who hails from Ambala and is in Delhi for studies, said: “While back home my problem was not very acute, after coming to Delhi, I suffer from breathing attacks frequently.”
For Rakhi Mukhuty, it is a daily battle with severe allergic cough of her three-year-old daughter. “I spend sleepless nights just tending to my daughter as she frequently has coughing bouts”.
“The doctors want us to save her from poisonous fumes, but that is not possible in Delhi,” Mukhuty adds.
Sumit Sharma, Fellow and area convenor at Centre for Environmental Studies, Earth Science and Climate Change Division of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), said in India there was very little awareness about the dangers from air pollution.
“As a result of this, the government has also not taken any interest,” he said. “Such an issue will be taken up by the political parties only when people feel affected.”
According to a report of the World Health Organization released on Wednesday, Delhi is the most polluted city of the world. Thirteen of the 20 most polluted cities of the world are in India, with Delhi, Patna, Gwalior and Raipur in the top four spots, it said.
The WHO statement noted: “High concentration of small and fine particulate pollution is particularly associated with high numbers of deaths from heart disease and stroke as well as respiratory illnesses and cancers.”
Said Anumita Roy Chowdhary, Head of the Department of Air Pollution, Center for Science and Environment: The WHO report “comes as a shocking reminder on how things are getting worse. Air pollution is the biggest killer. We need very strong policy response on this”.
“In other cities of the world, the government takes responsibility of informing people about air pollution levels and subsequent health alerts. We need such kind of systems in India as well,” she added.
Asked about the kind of political response needed for this issue, Roy Chowdhary said: “Public health has to be the top priority.”
“Action plans must be implemented very aggressively. People are responding but the policy response is very weak. We need to build up public opinion and pressure,” she added.
The WHO report contains results of outdoor air pollution monitoring from almost 1,600 cities in 91 countries. Last month the organization issued new information estimating that outdoor air pollution was responsible for the deaths of some 3.7 million people under the age of 60 in 2012.
Many factors contribute to the increase in air pollution, including reliance on fossil fuels such as coal-fired power plants, proliferation of private transport motor vehicles, inefficient use of energy in buildings, and the use of biomass for cooking and heating, the WHO said.
This is not the first time Indian cities have earned the dubious distinction of having extremely polluted air. In January, Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index 2014 ranked India among the bottom five in a list of 178 countries for various parameters, including air pollution.