The likelihood of at least 600,000 deaths being caused annually in India by fine particulate matter pollution in the air is cause for worry, even if the data released by the World Health Organisation are only a modelled estimate.
The conclusion that so many deaths could be attributed to particulate matter 2.5 micrometres or less in size is, of course, caveated, since comprehensive measurement of PM2.5 is not yet being done and the linkages between pollution, disease and deaths need further study.
What is not in doubt is that residents in many urban areas are forced to breathe unhealthy levels of particulates, and the smallest of these — PM10 and less — can penetrate and get lodged deep in the lungs.
The WHO Global Burden of Disease study has been working to estimate pollution-linked health impacts, such as stroke and ischaemic heart disease, acute lower respiratory infection and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Data on fine particulates in India show that in several locations the pollutants come from burning of biomass, such as coal, fuel wood, farm litter and cow dung cakes.
In highly built-up areas, construction debris, road dust and vehicular exhaust add to the problem.
The Prime Minister launched an Air Quality Index last year aimed at improving pollution control. The new data, which the WHO says provide the best evidence available on the terrible toll taken by particulates, should lead to intensified action.
A neglected aspect of urban air pollution control is the virtual discarding of the Construction and Demolition Waste Management Rules, notified to sustainably manage debris that is dumped in the cities, creating severe particulate pollution.
The Environment Ministry has highlighted the role that debris can play as a resource. Municipal and government contracts are, under the rules, required to utilise up to 20 per cent materials made from construction and demolition waste, and local authorities must place containers to hold debris.
This must be implemented without delay. Providing cleaner fuels and scientifically designed cookstoves to those who have no option but to burn biomass, would have a big impact on reducing particulate matter in the northern and eastern States, which are the worst-hit during winter, when biomass is also used for heating.
Greening the cities could be made a mission, involving civil society, with a focus on landscaping open spaces and paving all public areas to reduce dust. These measures can result in lower PM10 and PM2.5 levels. Comprehensive measurement of these particulates is currently absent in many cities, a lacuna that needs to be addressed