Health as the Focus of Air Pollution Policy : Daily Current Affairs

Date: 16/11/2022

Relevance: GS-2: Issues relating to development and management of Social Sector/Services relating to Health, Education, Human Resources.

Relevance: GS-3: Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation.

Key Phrases: Air Pollution in the NCR, Air Quality, Air Quality Index, National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), Commission for Air Quality Management


  • The worsening winter air quality in north India has yet again brought into public focus the harmful effects of air pollution on our health.

Background: Health is the collateral damage to the Air pollution

  • The effects of exposure to bad air are felt in every organ of the body and by every person but the most deeply by the vulnerable in society — children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with pre-existing health conditions.
  • In India, in 2019, 17.8% of all deaths and 11.5% of respiratory, cardiovascular and other related diseases are attributable to high exposure to pollution ( The Lancet).

What is Air Pollution?

  • Air pollution is the presence of substances in the atmosphere that are harmful to the health of humans and other living beings, or cause damage to the climate or to materials.
  • Different types of air pollutants include-
    • Gases: such as ammonia, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, methane, carbon dioxide and chlorofluorocarbons.
    • Particulates such as PM10, PM2.5, nanoparticles etc.
    • Biological molecules.

The System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (SAFAR)

  • About
    • A national initiative introduced by the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES)
    • It is indigenously developed by the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), Pune.
  • Operations and functionality
    • It has a giant true color LED display that gives out a real-time air quality index on a 24x7 basis with color-coding (along with 72 hours advance forecast.
    • It is an integral part of India’s first Air Quality Early Warning System operational in Delhi.
    • It monitors all weather parameters like temperature, rainfall, humidity, wind speed, and wind direction, UV radiation, and solar radiation.
  • Pollutants monitored:
    • PM2.5, PM10, Ozone, Carbon Monoxide (CO), Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), Sulfur Dioxide (SO2), Benzene, Toluene, Xylene, and Mercury.

Why is health missing in air pollution policy?

  • Although India’s key environmental laws have clearly laid out the primacy of protecting public health in their objects and reasons.
  • Regulators lack health expertise:
    • The constitution of our environmental regulators, expert groups and decision-making entities that define and translate environmental laws into air pollution policy have a lack of health expertise.
  • Isolated nature of policymaking and an insufficient understanding of health among policymakers.
  • Air pollution policy is created and implemented in a vacuum as there is little recognition of the effect it has on society.
    • For illustration: the most recently constituted institution, the Commission for Air Quality Management, reveals a lack of any health representation.
    • Similarly recent papers published by the Centre for Policy Research also reveal that health sector representatives comprise less than 5% of the membership of State Pollution Control Boards.

Health at the centre of air quality governance and policy making

  • To acknowledge the criticality of air pollution, health must be turned into a feature and eventually a function of air pollution policy.
  • To treat health as a facet of air pollution policy
    • Occasionally provide a health voice a seat at the table i.e. representatives and medical experts should be involved in policy making.
  • Health and epidemiological evidence will drive our determination to achieve substantial health benefits from clean air targets.
  • Notably the Ministry of Health’s Steering Committee on Air Pollution took health expertise into consideration which has reaped its benefits.
    • It took an exposure-centered view to policy by prioritizing interventions that contributed the most to reducing exposure and thereby providing health benefits.
    • It also brought to light the local and global epidemiological evidence on the harmful effects of air pollution, and defined policy measures aligned with that science.
    • For example, focusing on household cook stove smoke.
  • As India is in the process of revising its ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) and it should take health expertise into consideration.
    • Foregrounding health in such a process means the standards would be determined not just by local conditions, but also by the impact of exposure on vulnerable populations.

National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS)

  • These are standards for air quality that are applicable all over the country.
  • Standards are set by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) using the powers of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.
  • The first ambient air quality standards were developed in 1982 pursuant to the Air Act.
  • The standards are revised over the years and the latest revision to the NAAQS was done in 2009.
  • The compliance of the NAAQS is monitored under the National Air Quality Monitoring Programme (NAMP).
  • The current standards (2009) comprise 12 pollutants as follows:
    • Ammonia (NH3)
    • Lead (Pb)
    • Benzene
    • Benzopyrene
    • Arsenic (As)
    • Nickel (Ni)
    • Particulate Matter 10 (PM10)
    • Particulate Matter 2.5 (PM2.5)
    • Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)
    • Sulphur Dioxide (SO2)
    • Carbon Monoxide (CO)
    • Ozone (O3)

Eschewing the status quo is the way forward

  • There needs to be a radical rethinking of the way we design policy from the ground up.
  • Behind every source that contributes significantly to air pollution from stubble burning to thermal power plant emissions, there is a story of parochial, sectoral, and isolated policymaking.
    • We can see decisions are made without any consideration of their potential second and third order effects, especially on health.
  • Take lessons from the Health Ministry’s Steering Committee which has convened experts from a range of disciplines and sectors to develop a prescription that would primarily focus on health benefits.
  • Focus on the explicit health benefits of specific sustainable and effective interventions in place of proliferation of untested, ad hoc techno fixes such as smog towers.
  • This overhaul would also lead us to accelerate climate and air quality actions that control emissions from those sectors that cause the greatest health burden.


  • We are at a crossroads in our fight against air pollution and therefore the need of the hour is to centre us on science and health in fixing this problem rather than the contemporaneous approach to tackling the issue which has been tried for decades and been ineffective.

Source: The Hindu

Mains Question:

Q. Health must be turned into a feature and a function of air pollution policy. Critically examine the statement in light of shortcomings in India’s air pollution policies and lack of participation of health experts in such policy making. (250 words).