January 18, 2020

10 things you didn’t know about India’s air quality

Everyone is talking about air pollution, but how much do you really know about it?

2 min read
This is the first article in a 3-part series supported by the India Climate Collaborative (ICC). This series discusses India's deteriorating air quality.

View the entire series here.


Worsening air quality is a pan-India problem: 76 percent of Indians live in places that do not meet national air quality standards. This means that air pollution in India is not a problem restricted to winters in Delhi or to India’s cities; in fact, no Indian state achieves pollution levels at or below the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) limits.


Air pollution is a leading risk factor for death: One in eight deaths in India was attributable to air pollution in 2017. Additionally, at 1.24 million, the deaths caused by air pollution are more than those caused by diarrhoea, tuberculosis, HIV, or malaria. The health cost of this is as high as USD 80 billion.


The elderly are disproportionately affected: About half of these 1.24 million deaths are of people over the age of 70, making the elderly among the most vulnerable to air pollution, in addition to women, children, and low-income communities.



The average life expectancy of a child is reduced by at least 2.6 years. Additionally, 10 percent of all under-five deaths in 2016 were caused by worsening air quality.

Mumbai air pollution at dawn-air quality
22 of the 30 most polluted cities in the world are in India. | Photo courtesy: Flickr


Low-income populations are overexposed to causes of air pollution because they do not possess the financial strength to defend themselves against it. This is because of four reasons:

  • They typically cannot afford to live in relatively safe or upwind residential areas, away from industry and powerplants.
  • They cannot afford new technology such as air purifiers and appropriate face masks.
  • They often have to take up jobs in mining, traffic management, or work as industrial labourers which overexposes them to higher amounts of particulate matter.
  • They are reliant on polluting fuels such as wood, dung, or kerosene for cooking and heating.


It is a public health emergency: New research indicates that air pollution impacts birth weight, child growth, obesity, and bladder cancer. There is growing evidence of the adverse impacts of pollution on cognitive abilities in children.


Rural India is being sidelined: Of the 600-plus air quality monitoring stations the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) set up across the country, there are none in rural areas. The lack of adequate monitoring and measurement systems leaves the air quality challenges in rural India uncovered.


Efforts aren’t reaching the people who need them the most: 49 of the 54 (90 percent) organised citizen mobilisations on air pollution in 2019 occurred in urban areas.1 However, 75 percent of the deaths linked to air pollution (in 2015) occurred in rural areas.


Information about it is inaccessible: 84 percent of the total media coverage on air pollution is in English. 2


India has more polluted cities than any other country: 22 of the 30 most polluted cities in the world are in India, and almost 99 percent of Indians breathe air that is above the WHO’s defined safety limits.


  1. Dalberg analysis on Times of India coverage on air pollution in 2019. Dalberg conducted this analysis as a part of an internal research in partnership with the India Climate Collaborative and ASAR social impact.
  2. Meltwater Analysis, via Dalberg. Dalberg found this as a part of an internal research conducted in partnership with the India Climate Collaborative and ASAR social impact.

Know more

Do more

  • Check the air quality in your area in real time on the Central Pollution Control Board’s National Air Quality Index or see the air quality across India at a glance here or here
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Shloka Nath-Image
Shloka Nath

Shloka Nath is Executive Director, India Climate Collaborative. She also leads the Sustainability portfolio at the Tata Trusts, focused on the organisation’s climate, energy, and environment work. Prior to this, Shloka co-founded and was Managing Partner, Sankhya Women Impact Funds. Shloka is an angel investor in social enterprises and has mentored organisations across sectors. Shloka has a Master's in Public Policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a BSc in Government from The London School of Economics and Political Science.