India launches air quality index to give pollution information

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Media captionThe BBC's Sanjoy Majumder reports from Delhi: ''If you live in this city for 30 years, your lungs resemble that of a smoker''

India has launched its first air quality index, to provide real time information about pollution levels.

The index, announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, will initially monitor air quality in 10 cities.

Last year the Environmental Preference Index ranked India 174 out of 178 countries for air quality.

The rising and health-endangering pollution has been mainly blamed on a huge increase in vehicles, particularly diesel-driven cars, on Indian roads.

Polluting industries, open burning of refuse and leaves, massive quantities of construction waste and substantial loss of forests have also led to high pollution levels in cities.

A World Health Organization (WHO) survey last year found that 13 of the most polluted 20 cities in the world were in India. The capital, Delhi, was the most polluted city in the world, the survey said.

It is a leading cause of premature death in India, with about 620,000 people dying every year from pollution-related diseases, says the WHO.

On Monday, Mr Modi said India "has to take the lead in guiding the world on thinking of ways to combat climate change".

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Image caption Industrial waste as well as an increasing number of cars are to blame for frequently high levels of pollution

"The world thinks India doesn't care about the environment, we must change that... India has always respected the environment," he said. He also called on Indians to make changes to their lifestyle to help reduce pollution.

Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said the air quality index "may prove to be a major impetus to improving air quality in urban areas, as it will improve public awareness in cities to take steps for air pollution mitigation".

But he did not provide any details on what the government would do to curb air pollution except introducing new rules on disposal of waste from construction work.

The new index will initially cover 10 cities - Delhi, Agra, Kanpur, Lucknow, Varanasi, Faridabad, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad - and will be extended to more than 60 cities, reports say.

Details of how the index's data will be gathered were not immediately clear.

But officials say it will provide "composite and comprehensive" information on the air quality, which will be displayed publicly and uploaded on the internet. The public can then know whether it would be safer to stay indoors or to refrain from strenuous activity outdoors.

Environmental groups have welcomed the move.

"Right now, there are around 247 Indian cities that have some air-quality monitoring mechanisms and, of that, at least 16 have online real-time monitoring capabilities," Anumita Roychowdhury of Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) told Mint newspaper.

"But the good part is the government for the first time is making a serious effort to tell people about the daily quality of their air, which people can understand in a simple way."

China has also announced a "war on air pollution", and recently began publishing figures for the air quality in its cities.

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