Union environment ministry, which generally avoids sharing details of air pollution-linked deaths, made an exception on Thursday when it said in Parliament that more than 35,000 people had died due to acute respiratory infections (ARI) across India in close to 10 years. More than 2.6 crore cases were reported every year during the period.
Although international studies have attributed far more deaths to air pollution in India, this was a rare official admission that pollution could be causing deaths on a large scale. The number of annual ARI cases reported by environment and forest minister Prakash Javadekar was high by any measure.
“Air pollution is known to be one of the aggravating factors for many respiratory ailments and cardiovascular diseases,” Javadekar stated, sharing the data provided by the health and family welfare ministry.
According to the data, 3.48 crore cases came to light in 2014, which means more than 95,000 Indians of all ages were reporting acute respiratory infection every day.
Responding to a Parliament question on impact of air pollution, the minister in his written response in Rajya Sabha stated, “Asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic bronchitis etc are the diseases caused by exposure to increasing air pollution.”
The environment ministry had in the past maintained that there was no “conclusive evidence” that air pollution had led to loss of lives of patients suffering from respiratory diseases.
Although it continued to stress that air pollution may just aggravate the condition as it was not the only cause of respiratory diseases, this time the ministry shared statistics related to ARI deaths from 2006 to 2015. The ministry, at the same time, also listed a number of measures being taken by it to minimize the impact of air pollution.
The figures revealed that West Bengal reported the maximum number of ARI deaths, followed by Andhra Pradesh (along with Telangana), Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Delhi. These states also reported relatively higher number of ARI cases.
International studies have been indicating that India’s air pollution could be exacting a far higher toll in human lives. A recent study published in Environmental Science and Technology journal had claimed that foul air was killing up to 80 people a day in Delhi alone.
Similarly, findings of the ‘Global Burden of Disease’ (GBD) report, released two years ago, noted that about 6,20,000 premature deaths had occurred in India from air pollution-related diseases in 2010. It had ranked air pollution as one of the top 10 killers in the world, and the sixth most dangerous killer in south Asia. GBD is a worldwide initiative involving the World Health Organization which tracks deaths and illnesses from all causes across the world every 10 years.
The environment ministry, however, invariably rejected such conclusions. Even last week, Javadekar had told Parliament that “there is no methodology to establish direct correlation between toxic air and death of people. The impact of various pollutants on health is a result of complex mixture of pollutants. Also, there are several synergistic and addictive factors like heredity, socio-economic condition, medical health, habits, occupation etc contributing to it.”