Delhi choked by pollution but Modi minister denies link with deaths

Updated November 12, 2017

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New Delhi: Indian motorists ride past a thick blanket of smog and dust in the Indian capital.—AP
New Delhi: Indian motorists ride past a thick blanket of smog and dust in the Indian capital.—AP

NEW DELHI: Foreign embassies have put out travel advisories for New Delhi and a US cancelled its services, but a senior minister in the Modi government denied on Saturday any link of deaths with severe air pollution choking the Indian capital.

The US-based United Airlines, said it was suspending its flights citing severe weather conditions.

“United has temporarily suspended our Newark-Delhi flights due to poor air quality concerns in Delhi and currently has waiver policies in place for customers who are travelling to, from or through Delhi,” the airline was quoted as saying.

The ‘foreign travel advice’ section of the UK government’s website said: “Severe air pollution is a major hazard to public health in Delhi, and a serious concern in many Indian cities. Children, the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions may be especially affected.”

Similarly, the website of the US embassy in New Delhi has termed the air quality in New Delhi, based on PM 2.5 levels, “hazardous”; the effects of which, the website said, could be “serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; serious risk of respiratory effects in general population,” adding that “everyone should avoid all outdoor exertion”.

Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan, however, appeared to question recent global studies that claim hundreds of thousands die in India due to pollution.

Dr Vardhan told NDTV in an interview that “to attribute any death to a cause like pollution may be too much”.

The Lancet Countdown 2017 last month said air pollution had claimed as many as 2.5 million lives in India in 2015, the highest in the world. There have been other estimates as well, putting a different number to the lives lost due to air pollution, NDTV said.

“Ultimately these studies have to be India centric. To attribute any death to a cause like pollution, that may be too much,” the minister said.

“Certainly if you have a diseased lung and if the pollution is continuously damaging your alveoli (air sacks) then one day when you die, you can attribute the cause of death, to some proportion, to maybe pollution. But I don’t think we can generalise and say that millions of people are dying only due to pollution,” Dr. Vardhan told NDTV in an interview.

The minister suggested that there was no need to get into such statistics of lives lost due to air pollution. “Different people will give different types of statistics. But no one can have a difference of opinion that pollution is detrimental to our health. We should be focused on that point,” he said.

Dr Harsh Vardhan’s comment is in contrast to his response in February this year when another global study that estimated 11 lakh deaths due to air pollution in India in 2015. He had then called air pollution a “silent killer” and a “slow poison” that could kill people, particularly children. “It can be a killer also. It can be like a slow poison. Which keeps destroying your alveoli in the lungs at a slow pace,” he had then said.

Published in Dawn, November 11th, 2015