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India Can’t Breathe!

December 4, 2021 | Expert Insights

COP26 has come to an end, and India has made multiple pledges to tackle climate change. Apart from promising that 50 per cent of its energy requirements will be met with renewables by 2030, it has committed to net-zero emissions by 2070. While these pledges are positive and earned applause from the global glitterati, the ground reality remains grim. As per figures of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the month of November 2021 has the dubious distinction of experiencing the worst level of pollution since detailed records were maintained by the CPCB with 11 straight days of the air quality remaining ‘severe’.


Toxic air is not just an environmental and health issue; it also directly impacts the economy. In the last few decades, India’s air quality has been getting significantly worse, and this is due to several factors. It is mainly attributed to rapid urbanisation, industrialisation, and population explosion. According to IQAir, in 2020, India was ranked as the third-worst country in the world in terms of air quality.

In Delhi, every winter, a toxic combination of fires, stubble burning, industrial smoke and vehicular emissions generate a layer of smog held down by the cold weather. The issue is visible not just in Delhi; but the entire northern region, with about 600 million people getting trapped in the smog. During these times, a large part of the North Indian population breathes air that is ten times worse than found anywhere else in the world.

India Can't Breathe!


India’s capital is under a ‘pollution lockdown,’ authorities in Delhi have shut schools and colleges indefinitely. Construction work has been banned temporarily till the smog levels come down. Out of the 11 coal-based power plants in the city, only five are allowed to be run. Government employees have been asked to work from home, and regulators are pushing the private sector to do the same.

According to Dr Arvind Kumar, a chest surgeon, who has worked in Delhi for over 30 years, this is not just a CO2 issue; this is about the health of the future generations of the country. He pointed out that in the past, 90 per cent of all people who had lung cancer were smokers and were above the age of 50. Now, half of lung cancer patients do not smoke, and the average age of a patient is 40. According to research from the University of Chicago, air pollution is likely to reduce life expectancy by nine years.

Research in Delhi found that about 30 per cent of teenagers had asthma, which is three times higher than the worldwide average. In 2019, around 1.7 million Indians died due to air pollution. This made up around 1/6th of the total deaths in the country. According to research published in the Lancet, the cost of air pollution is over $36 billion from an economic point of view. 

Meanwhile, as per the air quality index or AQI, a figure between 0-50 PM2.5 is good, and 50-100 PM2.5 is satisfactory. Delhi is currently at 400 PM2.5. According to a Delhi-based think tank, India can afford to shut down 30 of its most polluting coal-fired power plants without seriously impacting supply. However, the government, struggling with growth figures, has not adopted a strict policy, particularly regarding coal. In fact, Coal India has been tasked with boosting coal output by 40 per cent. In India, coal accounts for 70 per cent of all power generated and causes 10 per cent of the total air pollution.

In COP26, India has promised that by 2030, 50 per cent of its energy demands will be met by renewables. Although this is the right way forward, if the other 50 per cent comes from coal, it would be doubling its current output.

In 2019, the National Clean Air Program (NCAP) was launched with the intention to tackle the problems of toxic air. Around 50 million dollars was released to 114 cities in which air quality was too low. However, two years after its launch, the NCAP remains confined to paper. The reality is that state pollution control boards and urban bodies just do not have the capacity to undertake activities that tackle these issues.


The government has undertaken some steps to fix this issue. The push to replace solid fuels with gas for cooking has significantly cut down indoor air pollution. This move has potentially saved thousands, mostly women, from serious lung afflictions. India has also worked hard to increase its solar and wind capabilities, apart from strengthening its vehicle emission rules. Yet all this just scrapes the surface of this mammoth undertaking.


  • India’s toxic air is not just an environmental issue; it is also a public health crisis with real economic costs.
  • Keeping development in mind, India must find a way to reduce its dependency on coal. Its current attitude towards ‘phasing down’ coal, as displayed at COP26, may prove insufficient in the long run and fatal to a growing number of its citizens.