NEW DELHI (AP) -- India's filthy air is
cutting 660 million lives short by about
three years, according to research
published Saturday that underlines the
hidden costs of the country's heavy
reliance on fossil fuels to power its
economic growth with little regard for the
While New Delhi last year earned the
dubious title of being the world's most
polluted city, India's air pollution problem
is extensive, with 13 Indian cities now on
the World Health Organization's list of the
20 most polluted.
That nationwide pollution burden is
estimated to be costing more than half of
India's population at least 3.2 years of
their lives, according to the study, led by
Michael Greenstone of the University of
Chicago and involving environmental
economists from Harvard and Yale
universities. It estimates that 99.5 percent
of India's 1.2 billion people are breathing
in pollution levels above what the WHO
deems as safe.
"The extent of the problem is actually
much larger than what we normally
understand," said one of the study's co-
authors, Anant Sudarshan, the India
director of the Energy Policy Institute of
Chicago. "We think of it as an urban
problem, but the rural dimension has been
Added up, those lost years come to a
staggering 2.1 billion for the entire nation,
the study says.
While "the conventional definition of
growth has ignored the health
consequences of air pollution, this study
demonstrates that air pollution retards
growth by causing people to die
prematurely," Greenstone said in a
For the study, published in Economic &
Political Weekly, the authors borrowed
from their previous work in China, where
they determined that life expectancy
dropped by three years for every 100
micrograms of fine particulate matter,
called PM2.5, above safe levels. PM2.5 is of
especially great health concern because,
with diameters no greater than 2.5
micrometers, the particles are small
enough to penetrate deep into the lungs.
The authors note, however, that their
estimations may be too conservative
because they're based in part on 2012
satellite data that tend to underestimate
PM2.5 levels. Meanwhile, India sets
permissible PM2.5 levels at 40 micrograms
per cubic meter, twice the WHO's safe
India has a sparse system for monitoring
air quality, with sensors installed in only a
few cities and almost unheard of in the
countryside. Yet rural air pollution
remains high thanks to industrial plants,
poor fuel standards, extensive garbage
burning and a heavy reliance on diesel for
electricity generation in areas not
connected to the power grid. Wind
patterns also push the pollution onto the
plains below the Himalayan mountain
Sarath Guttikunda of the independent air
quality research group Urban Emissions
called the study a solid effort to quantify
some of the economic costs of pollution,
given "what information is available."
"Everything comes down to a lack of
monitoring data in India," said
Guttikunda, who was not involved in the
study. "If you don't have enough
monitoring information, you don't know
how much is coming out in the first place."
India developed extreme air pollution
while relying on burning fossil fuels to
grow its economy and pull hundreds of
millions of people up from poverty. More
than 300 million Indians still have no
access to electricity, with at least twice that
number living on less than $2 a day.
While India has pledged to grow its clean
energy sector, with huge boosts for solar
and wind power, it also has committed to
tripling its coal-fired electricity capacity to
450 gigawatts by 2030. Yet there still are no
regulations for pollutants like sulfur
dioxide or mercury emissions, while fuel
standards remain far below Western
norms and existing regulations often are
To meet its goal for coal-fired electricity,
the Power Ministry says the country will
double coal production to 1 billion tons
within five years, after already approving
dozens of new coal plants. That will have
predictable consequences for the country's
already filthy air, experts say.
The coal expansion plans through 2030
will at least double sulphur dioxide levels,
along with those of nitrogen oxide and
lung-clogging particulate matter, according
to a study published in December by
Urban Emissions and the Mumbai-based
nonprofit group Conservation Action Trust.