NEW DELHI: While Covid ruptured the mental peace of Indian families after leaving more than 5.3 lakh dead during the last two years, it was its evil twin — rapidly rising deadly pollution across the country— that snuffed out more than 23 lakh lives in 2019, according to a study.
The Lancet, which is the world’s oldest and most respected medical journal, has said air pollution in India alone caused 16 lakh deaths while water pollution accounted for another five lakh deaths.
The report, titled Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries and Risk Factors Study 2019 (GBD), also indicated that despite some conscious efforts, the results are yet to be seen in the country where more than a million people lose their lives every year due to air pollution. India, for the record, remains among the worst affected by pollution.
Overall, 90 lakh died in the world in 2019 due to various forms of pollution, with China (21 lakh), Nigeria (3.5 lakh), Pakistan (3 lakh), Indonesia (2.63 lakh), and Bangladesh (2.15 lakh) behind India.
High-income countries and big arms manufacturers like Russia, United States and the UK accounted for 93,000, 38,995 and 1.4 lakh deaths. Japan witnessed 71,684 deaths.
Among the lowest number of deaths due to pollution are India’s neighbour Mauritius (740), Thailand (130) and Seychelles (48).
Health experts and medical practitioners are more worried on India’s inability to hold down the causes of air pollution over the last two decades even as they say the deaths are based on modelling and may not be the exact indication.
Speaking with The New Indian, Dr Ambuj Roy, Professor, Department of Cardiology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi said, “Air pollution is one of the primary factors for morbidity and mortality in India. We know that wherever there is an increase in crop burning, there is an increase in high blood pressure incidents. Pollution has clearly shown as a precipitant for heart failures and heart attacks on days of higher pollution levels. The same goes with asthmatic attacks.
“ The only challenge is these deaths are based on modelling so we can’t be very dogmatic about the exact numbers. These can be indicators but may not be absolutely accurate,” Roy cautioned.
The study admits that there has been a decline in deaths owing to traditional methods of pollution including household air pollution, unsafe drinking water, and inadequate sanitation but modern forms like ambient air pollution, lead pollution and toxic chemical pollution are challenges for India.
“By 2019, death rates due to traditional pollution were a third of the death rate in 2000 in Ethiopia and Nigeria, and less than half of the death rate in 2000 in India. India has made the efforts against household air pollution, most notably through the Pradhan Mantri Ujjawala Yojana, but in 2019 still had the world’s largest number of air-pollution related deaths,” the study has said.
There are of course economic losses suffered by countries due to pollution, the report has said.
“While economic losses due to traditional pollution have decreased but are still 1% of the GDP in India, as much the losses due to modern form of pollution” the report has said.
While seeking to establish systems to monitor and control pollution, the study said ,”India has developed instruments and regulatory powers to mitigate pollution sources but there is no centralised system to drive pollution control efforts and achieve substantial improvements”
The study also showed that it is the low-income and middle-income countries that bear the brunt with 90% of pollution-related deaths reported from these countries.
At a global level, air pollution was responsible for 67 lakh deaths in 2019 while water pollution took 14 million lives. Lead pollution caused 900,000 premature deaths.
Environmental experts believe that in the years following 2019 this toll will augment itself exponentially, as the pollutants in the air haven’t decreased and to add to that we are dealing with a compromised lung and cardiovascular immunity in millions of individuals post covid.
“In our country where the average particulate matter (PM) concentration is among the highest in the world (70.3 µg/m³). It comes as no surprise that we lost 16 lakh souls prematurely to air pollution and five lakh to water pollution,” environmentalist Manu Singh told The New Indian.
“Illegal construction, dependency on fossil fuels, severely depleting water resources, stubble burning and loss of eco-sensitive zones are problems that seem to grow with each passing year,” Singh added.
Bhavreen Kandhari, a leading Delhi-based social environmentalist, said, “When the data came out, we were shocked. What is happening is definitely inaction. We are still increasing the garbage in the landfills, we are cutting away the trees, constructions are happening in every part of Delhi, and we are not taking care of the environment.”
The report though praised that lead has now been removed from automotive fuel in every country, latest being Algeria where government removed it from gasoline.
The report, however warns that wealthier countries displace their pollution footprints overseas, where lower-income countries experience increasing pollution domestically.
‘China has both problems. As it reduced PM from household, emissions generated from export production rose” the report cautioned.
It further said contamination of cereals, seafood, chocolate and vegetables for export threatens global food safety. This includes metals found in infant formulas and baby foods.
“Turmeric contaminated by lead in Bangladesh is of concern,” it said.