No data, No pollution, No deaths

India seems to be in a mood of denial when it comes to accepting the deplorable quality of air its citizens are forced to breathe

Photo by Kalpak Pathak/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Kalpak Pathak/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Mahendra Pandey

Few months back, a global report concluded that almost 1.1 million people died in India prematurely in 2015 due to air pollution. As anticipated the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF & CC) and Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) immediately rejected the report itself. Usually any scientific report is rejected on scientific facts, but this report was rejected because its origin was not India and also due to lack of data on air pollution in the country.

State of Global Air/2017 – A special report on global exposure to air pollution and its disease burden – has been prepared jointly by the Health Effect Institute and Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation’s Global Burden of Disease Project at the University of Washington. The report tells that worldwide high levels of PM2.5 killed 42,41,100 people in 2015 and out of these as many as 10,90,400 were Indians. Similarly 2,54,000 people died due to high levels of ozone in air and the share of our country was 1,07,800. In all, 44,95,100 people died in 2015 due to air pollution in the world which includes 11,98,200 Indians.

It is important to note that despite frightening figure of deaths as per the report, the actual number of deaths may be much more. The report is only on outdoor pollution and there are several other reports which tell that indoor pollution is a major problem in many countries including India. In addition, the report is based on only two parameters, PM2.5 and Ozone, so it is obvious that deaths from other pollutants have not been mentioned in the report. Another point of significance is that only WHO data have been used to prepare the report. Prime Minister during Swachh Bharat Campaigns always use WHO data on sanitation and his minister Dr Harshvardhan opines that WHO data should be taken seriously.

A senior scientist from CPCB reacted in the report, “of the 124 Indian cities whose pollution figures are available in WHO database, only 8 had direct PM2.5 database”. It was a remark on the ‘so called’ faulty extrapolations made by WHO, however the scientist from CPCB had not realized that whole world would know that only scant and fragmented data on PM2.5 are available in the country. PM2.5 has been included in ambient air quality standards, laid by CPCB itself, in the year 2009 and CPCB claims to have a network of ambient air monitoring network all over India. It is really a shame that a country profile of PM2.5 has not been prepared yet and all the cities do not have facilities for its measurement.

Another interesting claim made by CPCB is that WHO calculates PM2.5 as 75 percent of PM10, while as per observations of CPCB it varied between 8 to 86 percent and average being 47 percent in year 2014. It must be remembered that State of Global Air/2017 talks about deaths for PM2.5 in the year 2015. Probably it was intentional to present data of 2014, so that any comparison cannot be made. Contrary to claims made by CPCB about fraction of PM2.5, same organization uses a ratio of 60 percent everywhere. The ambient air quality standards for 24 hours are 100 micrograms per cubic metre for PM10 and 60 for PM2.5; the corresponding values for Annual standards being 60 for PM10 and 40 micrograms per cubic metre for PM2.5. Recently CPCB has brought out graded response action plan for Delhi, where for severe + emergency category PM10 values are 500 micrograms per cubic metre and for PM2.5 300 micrograms per cubic metre.

Neither the MoEF & CC nor CPCB uttered a word on ozone deaths probably because its measurement is much more restricted, confined only to selected locations at few metro cities. Ozone was also included in the ambient air quality standards in 2009. It is important to note that ozone level exceeded the limit several times in 2015 and 2016 and also recently at Delhi. During September to November, 2015 it gone up to 500 micrograms per cubic metre as against the standard of 100 micrograms for 8 hours and 180 micrograms per cubic metre for 1 hour. Again, ozone concentration made headlines during second Odd-Even phase of April, 2016. Delhi is only city where ozone measurement is done on regular basis but only at selected locations.

On the other hand, the then Environment Minister, Late Anil Dave, showed his patriotic character while commenting on the report. He said that a proud country should trust own scientific organisations and should not follow international studies. He trusts country’s organisations as much as have faith in Indian Army. His memory was probably too short, only last year his predecessor, Mr Prakash Javdekar rejected a report prepared by scientists of Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune which concluded that air pollution in Delhi has deducted 6 years from average life of Delhiites. In 2015, a study by scientists of IIT Roorkee was rejected by CPCB, which concluded that approximately 22,000 people annually die of air pollution in Delhi.

Dave also commented that tackling air pollution is no rocket science. Probably he forgot that during last three years the rocket science in India has made several world records in positive way while air pollution created several records in negative way. Those who track the activities of MoEF & CC and CPCB would be well aware that these organizations take several months in formulating any action plan on pollution control, but rejecting any report or thrashing the data by international agencies require hardly a day. Ultimate rejection of the report was evident from the statement by a senior scientist of CPCB, “international studies linking air quality in India to disease and death are flawed because the ethologic, personnel immunity and demography of India are incomparable with international practices”.

The objective of CPCB and MoEF & CC is very clear, never generate adequate data on pollution and never generate any report on ill effects of pollution. In this way, rejecting any report is easy because nothing of own is there to compare the data. It is the way through which pollution is controlled in the country and still we chant SWACHH BHARAT.

(MAHENDRA PANDEY is Delhi based environmental author and activist)

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines