Claim: “Look at India — it’s filthy. The air is filthy.”

Fact: True

For the second time in as many presidential debates, President Donald Trump singled out India (along with Russia and China) for their “filthy” air. Earlier he had said that “real dirt” was being sent into the air by these countries, contributing to global pollution.

Trump has time and again used this argument to justify the United States’ exit from the 2016 Paris Agreement, saying they were being made to pay the price to the benefit of India and China, who were not doing nearly enough to address the problem.

But in reality, no one is paying a bigger price than India, 100% of whose population is exposed to PM2.5 (particles measuring less than 2.5 microns in diameter ) exceeding the WHO guideline levels of 10 micrograms per cubic metre. This means almost all of its citizens are breathing in air with concentrations of PM2.5 higher than the recommended level, exposure to which has been known to cause adverse health effects. These particles are able to penetrate deep into the lungs and have a lasting impact on respiratory health.

According to the State of Global Air 2020 report, air pollution was directly responsible for the deaths of nearly 116,000 infants in India within the first month of their birth. Half of these deaths were due to PM2.5 in outdoor air. They were mostly related to complications arising from low birth weight and premature birth, both of which are a direct result of the exposure of pregnant women to polluted air.

India's Most Polluted Cities

Of the world's top 30 most polluted cities, 21 are located in India.

Except for recent anomalies, PM2.5 pollution has been steadily increasing in India since before India signed the Paris Agreement in 2016. In 2015, PM2.5 levels were at 32 µg/m³, climbing to reach 47 µg/m³ in 2016 and 74 µg/m³ in 2017, according to the Little Green Data Book by the World Bank.

In 2018, India ranked third in the world in terms of average PM2.5 concentration, weighted by population, registering 72.5 µg/m³. It did slightly better the next year, climbing down to rank 5 with pollution levels at 58 µg/m³. This was attributed to an economic slowdown and favourable meteorological conditions.

It further reduced dramatically in 2020 because of the COVID-19 related lockdown which curtailed mobile and industrial emissions for several weeks. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) noted a striking 46% drop in PM2.5 in Delhi between 25 March 2020 to 15 April 2020. From April to May 2020, PM2.5, PM10, NO2 and CO dropped across India’s metropolitan cities while ozone increased in many areas.

As per the global rankings by the World Air Quality Report 2019, the year that India was ranked at 5, Bangladesh was ranked 1, Pakistan at 2 and China at 11. Russia and the United States were at a distant 81 and 87 respectively. Delhi, which registered an average annual PM2.5 concentration of 98.6 µg/m³, was the most populated capital in the world. But Ghaziabad actually topped off the list at 110.2 µg/m³. At these levels of pollution, there is an increased likelihood of adverse effects and aggravation to the heart and lungs.

In 2019, the Centre launched the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) that aims to tackle air pollution by reducing PM2.5 and PM10 levels in 122 cities by 20-30% by 2024 compared to 2017 levels. The Centre will be working directly with city governments to create clean air plans and establish targets that focus on air quality index and health risk communications. A total fund of Rs. 224.74 crores have been released to respective State Pollution Control Boards for components sanctioned under NCAP during 2019-20.

This has become even more urgent with public health specialists warning that the seasonal spike in air pollution levels can aggravate the pandemic.