India is among the most polluted country in the world, a direct consequence of its growth-orientated policy. Despite economic growth, the health of Indians is suffering significantly. According to researchers at University of Chicago, Harvard and Yale, pollution is directly responsible for shortening the lives of 660 million Indians who live in sensitive areas by three years on average. In total 2.1 billion life-years are lost.


Image: SG Talk

Previous studies have shown particle matter pollution reduces productivity at work, increases the incidence of sick days and raises health care expenses. The new study adds a new dimension to the perils of rapid industrialization – shorter lives due to pollution.

Some 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world were in India. The list is in fact trumped by New Delhi, which long overthrew Beijing.  One of the capital’s neighborhoods Anand Vihar, a residential and business district, has measured PM 2.5 levels —the tiny particulate matter that causes the most damage to human health— at 580. Every additional 100 micrograms of total suspended particulate matter per cubic meter in the atmosphere lowers life expectancy at birth by three years. India has the highest rate of death caused by chronic respiratory diseases anywhere in the world.

“The loss of more than two billion life years is a substantial price to pay for air pollution. It is in India’s power to change this in cost-effective ways that allow hundreds of millions of its citizens to live longer, healthier and more productive lives. Reforms of the current form of regulation would allow for health improvements that lead to increased growth,” said Rohini Pande, a study co-author and director of Evidence for Policy Design at the Harvard Kennedy School.

The authors propose two cost-effective solution that the Indian government could make improve their citizens’ health:

  • Install more real-time monitoring stations. In most of the country, authorities rely on measurements taken one or twice a year from plant samples, which are far from adequate. Moreover, visible stations will help raise awareness to the situation among the population.
  • Move from criminal to civil penalties. India’s penalties for pollution are extremely severe including imprisonment or closure. Ironically, because they’re so harsh, the penalties rarely come into effect. A civil system based on a market-approach to managing emissions might be a lot better, since it wouldn’t necessarily curb industry growth – an argument often raised by some parties against civil penalties.

The findings appeared in Economic & Politically Weekly