Pollution kills millions worldwide every year. In 2015, India witnessed 1.1 million pollution-related deaths. The vast majority of these deaths were borne by the country’s rural population, a new study suggests.
“A pan-Indian problem”
75 percent of the 1.1 million pollution-related deaths which took place in India in 2015 took place in rural areas. Exposure to fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) is more or less level across urban and rural India. However, as India’s rural population, accounts for two thirds of the country’s total, they account for significantly more fatalities.
Despite this, air pollution is commonly perceived as an issue predominantly affecting urban areas. However, according to Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IITB) professor Chandra Venkataraman, the study reflects that ‘air pollution is a national, pan-Indian problem. It’s not limited to urban centres and megacities.’
What pollutes rural India?
Pollution in rural India has long been an overlooked problem.
One of the key drivers of the crisis is the domestic burning of biofuels such as wood, coal and animal waste. In fact, 25 percent of pollution-related deaths in the country can be linked to this common practice – more than the deaths linked to industrial emissions. More than 267,000 Indians died as a result of indoor biomass burning in 2015.
Biomass burning has been recognised as a significant threat to public health since at least 1997. However, it rarely attracts the same level of press attention as pollution from sources such as industry or vehicles. As a result, despite their clear hazard to public health and the health of the nation, traditional cookstoves continue to be widely used. As of December 2016, 64 percent of India’s rural population cook using solid fuel burnt indoors. There have been a number of notable failures in past civil society efforts to address this issue.
‘A crucial measure’
Use of these appliances does not just impact indoor air quality. Speaking to Health Issues India, Professor Venkataraman says ‘traditional residential biomass cooking stoves represent the largest single sector influencing outdoor air pollution across most of India, in addition to their widely known influence on indoor air pollution.’
The response must ‘[emphasise] provision of clean residential energy’, Venkataraman adds. This, she says, is ‘a crucial measure’ – one which is needed as anti-pollution policy in India must represent ‘at the convergence of sustainable development goals and early action to curb ambient air pollution.’
This is a vital point. Improving air quality and boosting public health are inextricably linked goals and action must integrate these objectives. There is a clear and crucial need for action not only at the national level, but on a more intimate and localised scale – as intimate, even, as people’s homes.
‘No option but to burn it’
Another driver of the air pollution crisis in rural areas is the practice of burning agricultural stubble. This is the burning of paddy fields by farmers in order to dispose of the stubble left after harvesting. The study blames this practice for 66,000 pollution-related deaths every year.
Stubble burning has pronounced and far-reaching effects on air quality and public health. It releases copious amounts of pollutants into the atmosphere, at an even greater rate than what is generated in urban areas.
The particulate matter emissions from agricultural burning is more than seventeen times that of all other sources in Delhi. Agricultural burning also releases five times more sulphur dioxide and 64 times more carbon dioxide.
Stubble burning was identified as a major cause of the Delhi smog last year – and its impact on the surrounding rural communities cannot be overlooked either.
However, subsidies for stubble-clearing equipment have failed to incentivise farmers away from stubble burning. Steep fines also have yet to be effective in discouraging the practice. Farmers say that the cost of clearing stubble is too much even with subsidies for new equipment.
‘The labour to cut this residue is too expensive,” one farmer from Haryana says. ‘They charge ₹ 2,000 per kilogram. We have no option but to burn it.’
The threat of climate change and overexploitation depleting natural resources, means the financial implications loom even larger. This is a state of affairs some say is driving many farmers to commit suicide – and makes the reluctance to adopt more expensive means of disposing agricultural waste understandable, even as it hits public health hard. As the Haryana farmer states, many feel they have no other option.
Low awareness in rural areas compounds the issue. The farmer points to a lack of education, noting no Legislative Assembly Members visit the affected areas. Without understanding the importance of ending a practice that, whilst hazardous, is cost-effective (at least in the short term), rural populations are much less likely to move to safer, more costly methods.
Full scale of the crisis
Air pollution is now widely understood to be a threat, yet the full scope of the issue and its manifold causes is scarcely appreciated. In terms of India’s cities – particularly Delhi – the scale of the crisis seems to be understood. But understanding of the numerous threats air pollution poses has to extend beyond city walls and reach those in rural communities whose health and lives are threatened both outdoors and in their own homes.
The publication of comprehensive data detailing the threat to rural populations, the causes and possible solutions is an encouraging step towards a greater appreciation of how air pollution affects all in India – and carries the potential for a response that will cohesively address the issue.