50 most polluted regions of world in India’s northern plains: University of Chicago report

Delhi is the most polluted city in India and the world, report highlights
A denser population means more human lives are impacted by each pollution source. Photo: iStock
A denser population means more human lives are impacted by each pollution source. Photo: iStock

The world’s 50 most polluted regions belong to the Northern Plains of India, showed the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) report for 2023 by the University of Chicago. 

Seven states and Union territories that include Bihar, Chandigarh, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, comprise a majority of this region, according to the report. They also face the greatest health burden due to particulate pollution in India, the report added.

In north India, fine particulate air pollution (particulate matter 2.5) shortens lives by eight years, the authors of the report found. This underscores the outsized benefits effective pollution policy would have, allowing residents of north India to gain 4.2 billion life years in total, they added.

Figure source: AQLI India factsheet latest edition

In the most polluted region of the Northern Plains — the national capital territory of Delhi — 18 million residents are on track to lose 11.9 years of life expectancy on average relative to the World Health Organization guidelines and 8.5 years relative to the national guideline if current pollution levels persist, the report suggested.

Delhi is the most polluted city in India and the world, it highlighted.

“Yet, even in the least polluted district in the region — Pathankot in the state of Punjab — particulate pollution is more than seven times the WHO guideline, taking 3.1 years off life expectancy if current levels persist.”

High population density makes it worse

All of the 521.2 million people living in the Northern Plains — 38.9 per cent of India’s population — live in areas where the annual average particulate pollution level is 17.3 times higher than the WHO guideline.

Though the particulate pollution in the Northern Plains is exacerbated by geological and meteorological factors, the AQLI’s dust and sea salt-removed PM2.5 data implies that human activity plays a key role in generating the severe particulate pollution that these residents face. 

This, the analysts explained, is likely due to the fact that the region’s population density is nearly three times that of the rest of the country, meaning more pollution from vehicular, residential and agricultural sources. 

A denser population also means more human lives are impacted by each pollution source, it added.

AQLI is a pollution index that translates particulate air pollution into perhaps the most important metric that exists: Its impact on life expectancy. Developed by the University of Chicago’s Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics, Michael Greenstone, and his team at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), the AQLI is rooted in research that quantifies the causal relationship between long-term human exposure to air pollution and life expectancy. 

The index then combines this research with hyper-localised, satellite measurements of global particulate matter (PM2.5), yielding unprecedented insight into the true cost of pollution in communities around the world. 

The index also illustrates how air pollution policies can increase life expectancy when they meet the WHO’s guideline for what is considered a safe level of exposure, existing national air quality standards or user-defined air quality levels. 

This information can help inform local communities and policymakers about the importance of air pollution policies in concrete terms.

Particulate pollution has increased over time. From 1998 to 2021, average annual particulate pollution increased by 61 per cent, further reducing life expectancy by 3.2 years.

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