India might have tried to downplay the recent global report which attributed nearly 1.1 million premature deaths in 2015 to air pollution, but the absence of its own study to counter such claim appears to have ruffled many feathers within the government.

It prompted the environment minister Anil Madhav Dave on Tuesday to announce that the government would come out with "its own study" on effects of air pollution on human health.

"The environment ministry is working with the health ministry to assess the trends and impact (of air pollution) in this regard", said Dave while emphasising that the government must trust the data coming from Indian scientists.

Referring to the recent global studies, Dave said, "These reports are often based on extrapolation without due scientific validation and there is need for caution before arriving at any conclusion.

"We are also not saying that we do not take note of those studies. Neither we are saying those (global) studies are correct or they are incorrect...A proud country always trusts its own data and takes action on that. We believe in our institutions".

Though India has never denied air pollution-linked health hazards, it preferred not to speak on numbers (of deaths) in absence of any scientific study in the country. The only available report on the issue relates to an epidemiological study on ambient air quality and its impact on children in Delhi. It was brought out by the Chittranjan National Cancer Institute, Kolkata in 2010.

The Institute in its report highlighted impact of air pollution on human health, but didn't speak about specific number of deaths in India linked to it. The environment ministry generally avoids sharing details of air pollution-linked deaths, but it had in August 2015 made an exception and told the Parliament that more than 35,000 people had died due to acute respiratory infections (ARI) across India in over nine years from January, 2006 to mid-2015.

Without attributing these deaths directly to air pollution, it had said air pollution in general causes respiratory ailments and may affect lung function. It also noted how it acts as an "aggravating" factor for many respiratory ailments and cardiovascular diseases.

Although global studies have attributed far more deaths to air pollution in India, sharing of such data was a rare official admission that pollution could be causing deaths. The figures, shared in Rajya Sabha in August 2015, show that West Bengal reported the maximum number of ARI deaths, followed by Andhra Pradesh (united), Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Delhi.

Asked about the action being taken by the Centre to deal with the menace, Dave referred to the 42-point action plan which was issued to states for implementation and said the Centre was doing its job and constantly working on what more can be done.

Seeking to shift the onus on state governments and local bodies, the minister said tackling air pollution was no "rocket science" and the states and local bodies have to play a "decisive" role as the Centre can only work like a "philosopher and guide" to them in a federal structure.

Referring to air pollution situation in Delhi, Dave noted that 20% of the air pollution comes from dust on roads and is a major reason for PM 2.5 levels. He said vehicular emissions contributed to 20% of air pollution while another 20% contribution to the bad air is made by industries, generator sets and stubble burning and stressed on the need to work on those issues by states.

He, however, pointed out that the problem was not restricted to Delhi alone. "Since Delhi's air condition becomes worse, we see it more. But the same experience is there in Patna, Bhuvaneshwar, Mumbai -- their health is affected in a similar way," said Dave.

Emphasising that the control and abatement of air pollution is one of the key priorities of the government, Dave said the ministry was closely monitoring the trend of various air pollutants across the country under the National Air Quality Monitoring Programme.

The monitoring network comprises of 680 manual stations spread over 300 cities in 29 States and 6 Union Territories. Apart from manual stations, there are 54 continuous ambient air quality monitoring stations that cover 33 cities in 12 states. The monitoring network is being expanded to cover all metro cities and capital towns.

Dave said, "The result of the monitoring shows that while the levels of particulate matters have a fluctuating trend, the value of SO2 is generally within permissible limits. Values of NO2 are also generally within the permissible limits except in few cities.

"In case of Delhi, the values of SO2 are within the permissible limits while the values of NO2 are fluctuating and slightly above the permissible limits. It is value of particulate matter which is the main concern and the government has been taking all necessary measures to mitigate this problem in a systematic manner".

Source: February 22, 2017, The Times of India