Delhi resident Maheswari Devi lost her husband to lung cancer a few months ago. “Without any history of lung disease or smoking, the doctors suspected the polluted air to be the cause,” Devi says.
Research studies across the globe have established the harmful impact of air pollution on human health. With more than 660 million Indians living in areas that don’t meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards, the gravity of the problem is severe.
Dr. Arvind Kumar, chairman of the Center for Chest Surgery at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in Delhi, further underscores the severity of the problem. He says, “I have been a chest surgeon for more than 30 years and these days we get cases wherein patients are neither smokers or even passive smokers and yet they are suffering from lung cancer and other severe respiratory diseases due to polluted air.”
Devi and Kumar’s experiences make clear that India’s pollution problem is getting more severe. But can information about the benefits of air pollution policies help citizens and policymakers in better addressing this challenge?
The University of Chicago’s Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) seems to offer some guidance in that direction. The Index (https://aqli.epic.uchicago.edu/) allows users to zoom in on any district in the world and explore pollution levels in their local communities; see how the air they breathe every day is affecting their life expectancy; and learn how policies that successfully reduce pollution in their country or community could increase their life expectancy.
Launched in 2018, the platform is being widely used by Indian citizens and policymakers alike to provide justification for the need for change.
“AQLI as a tool will help in awakening the planners so that the air quality of their cities can be improved,” says Professor Dhruv Sen Singh, director Lucknow University’s air quality monitoring station. Bharati Chaturvedi, founder and director of the Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group who has also been advocating for clean air in Delhi adds, “AQLI is like a capsule which gives all of us a hardcore number that even a person with an average level of literacy is able to understand because we all understand what it means to live less. The tool which now is available in Hindi also, adds credibility and empowers us to bring the discussion on the lawmaker’s table.”
Santosh Singh is an assistant editor of the Indian Express in Patna where residents could add up to 7.7 years to their lives if the air met WHO guidelines. Of the AQLI, he says, “AQLI quantifies the health impact into loss of life years which is making this conversation more objective, but it’s active citizen engagement that can take it to the next level. Otherwise, it shall remain a matter of academic and media discourse.”
To energize citizen engagement, the AQLI launched its platform in Hindi last year. It is now being used by people across the country, including in the most polluted cities such as Lucknow, Patna, Delhi, Kolkata, Gwalior, among others where students and other stakeholders have been citing the index to draw the attention of policymakers.
Policymakers have responded, using the AQLI and its findings as an urgent call to action in both public statements and in the draft legislation. In 2019, Rajya Sabha MP Vandana Chavan cited AQLI as she called for an amendment to existing law and demanded that India’s air pollution laws should prioritize the health and productivity of citizens. She was quoted saying air pollution was a national emergency. At the launch of AQLI Hindi in October 2019, Parliamentarian Gaurav Gogoi announced the tabling of a new private members’ bill to strengthen the Clean Air Act.
As this robust, data-driven tool gains popularity, it can emerge as a valuable tool for Indian citizens and policymakers as they work to address the air pollution crisis.