Nature and Biodiversity

Pollution is significantly reducing life expectancy in India – here's what needs to be done, say researchers

India pollution air

India pollution stats: Nine of the ten most polluted cities in the world are in India. Image: BWHealthCareWorld

Ruma Bhargava
Lead, Mental Health, World Economic Forum Geneva
Mahesh Ramanujam
President and CEO, Global Network for Zero
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Nature and Biodiversity?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Air Pollution is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Air Pollution

This article first appeared in BW Healthcare World.

  • India’s national clean air strategy aims to reduce emissions of particulate matter by as much as 30% by 2024.
  • Air pollution is currently shortening the life expectancy of people in Delhi by 10 years, according to a new report from the University of Chicago.
  • The Air Quality Life Index shows that particulate matter pollution reduces life expectancy more than communicable diseases, the researchers say.
  • Here they outline a three-pronged, comprehensive plan to accelerate zero emissions that will bridge the public and private sectors, across all industries.

It’s no secret that the increase in air pollution has taken an extraordinary toll on both the quality and longevity of life in India. Nine of the ten most polluted cities in the world are in India. And, according to a recent report from the Energy Policy Institute of the University of Chicago (EPIC), air pollution shortens human life expectancy in Delhi by ten years. This report also confirms that in addition to the Indo-Gangetic plain being the most polluted region in the world, with its air quality failing to meet World Health Organisation guidelines, the average Indian will lose five years of life expectancy as a result.

How can we best tackle air particulate pollution?

The Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) shows that particulate matter (PM) pollution reduces life expectancy more than communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, and behavioural killers, such as cigarette smoking, and, in some cases, even war.

An Indian economy that doesn’t produce polluting emissions is the only way forward. A zero emissions India must be treated with the same sense of urgency and mass mobilization as would a respiratory pathogen threatening our survival, because that’s what this requires.


How is the World Economic Forum fighting the climate crisis?

A three-step approach to reaching zero emissions

But decarbonising India cannot happen in a vacuum. Reaching zero emissions requires a three-pronged, comprehensive plan for bridging the public and private sectors. This must also be accepted by leaders in sustainability, investment and finance, innovation and technology, healthcare and public health, government and policy, construction, engineering and architecture.

Educate about zero emissions

First, we must educate the community on why universal, robust and measured initiatives on the part of organizations, both large and small, to systematically reduce carbon across every facet of their operations under their environmental social and governance (ESG) programmes is the single greatest tool for accelerating a zero emissions future in this country and around the globe.

We must create an ecosystem that supports ESG implementation. And it’s also our responsibility to explain what we expect the impact of our decarbonization efforts to have on India and the world’s collective life expectancy and overall quality of life.

Link zero emissions with human rights

Second, we must consider integrating ESG practices through the lens of human rights. This must be done with a calculated, methodical campaign that navigates the cold, hard truth that existential crises are most often tackled first with economic arguments. Indians have a human right to healthy air, and they deserve an actionable strategy that reflects that. With 95 cities failing to meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards, we have a long way to go. If we lived in a utopia where problems were solved with the press of a button, the right to live a life uninhibited by preventable pollution would seem straightforward, but we have to recognize that it is not this easy.

India’s national strategy aims to reduce PM emissions by as much as 30 per cent by 2024. But, a report from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, finds that a total of 132 cities, up from 102 cities since the 2019 inception of the National Clean Air Programme, have pollution levels below national standards. So, while we must recognise that perfect can’t be the enemy of good, we must be truthful about the fact that we are going from bad to worse. Then, we must acknowledge that accelerating zero emissions is the most effective and efficient way of reversing that reality and ensuring Indians experience the benefits of clean air and the right to live longer, healthier lives now and in the future.

If we want business, tech and policy leaders to understand and act on the facts we have about life expectancy, we must address their work-life expectations as well. In other words, we need to start by also speaking about years lost in labour. Lost labour income due to fatal illness from PM 2.5 pollution in 2017 was between $30 and $78 billion, equivalent to between 0.3 per cent and 0.9 per cent of the country’s GDP.

Use technology to hasten the journey to zero emissions

Third, and finally, this death sentence must be met with the digital transformation of our climate actions. We must rapidly embrace emerging technologies in the name of removing redundancies, offering predictive analytics, securing data and improving business decision-making. And, we have to do all of this while constantly reminding ourselves that the end of each decision must be accountability to one another. It must be, first and foremost, about the health, well-being and longevity of the Indian people.

With COVID-19 and the growing climate crises looming simultaneously, our hope is that Indian leaders will focus on these priorities and finally come to terms with the compounding challenges many in positions of authority and resources have long turned a blind eye to. The present and future of India and the world is at stake, we can no longer afford to leave these life and death decisions around decarbonisation, quite literally up in the air.

Have you read?
Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Nature and BiodiversityHealth and Healthcare SystemsGeographies in DepthClimate Action
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Ban these companies from advertising, says UN chief, and other nature and climate stories you need to read this week

Michael Purton

June 13, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum