It’s January 18 and Delhi is cold. Colder than last year. Last week I seriously considered buying a heater for my apartment – which doesn’t get any vestigium of sunlight all day long – but the true is that they are too costly and I can’t afford them. At least I was able to buy a thick blanket to get over the freezing nights: keeping warm at night is not an easy task in Delhi’s winter, especially if you lack of alternatives to do so. As the temperature drops in north India, air pollution rises, along with an increasingly number of related deaths. And thanks to a new research by the Health Effects Institute (HEI), now we know the main reason behind it: residential biomass burning.

According to the study, the highest number of pollution related deaths in 2015 was due to domestic burning of fuel – wood, coal or cow dung – for cooking and heating, corresponding to 25% of India’s air pollution deaths. The remaining occurred by coal combustion from both thermal electric power plants and industry, anthropogenic dusts, open burning of agricultural residue, transport, diesel, and kilns. Surprisingly, most of them (75%) happened on rural areas, going against the common sense that urban areas are the deadliest when it comes to air pollution.

All this data reveals a lot about India and people’s habits in general, placing a light on the issue. While Delhi’s National Capital Region (NCR) has received most of the attention over the years for it’s deadly air, the study Burden of Disease Attributable to Major Air Pollution Sources in India discloses that more than a health matter, air pollution is a socioeconomic issue and requires much more attention and effort from the government if they want to change the scenario.

Photo: Harsha K R CC BY-SA 2.0 (cropped)

Every day I see people burning coal, wood and even trash for heating. The smell of smoke in my neighbourhood is so strong that gives me a headache as soon as I get home. Imagine this scene going on every night all over north India in winters. Imagine India’s vast population doing this along the whole year for cooking purpose. How the air quality is supposed to be? I guess you already know the answer.

The challenge is huge: once the poor people is more affected, how to provide clean energy sources to them if most of the times not even the middle class is able to get it? Only banning biomass burning in the country without providing other solutions will create more problems to be solved. After all, it’s all about surviving one more night in the shivering winter and trying not to starve with an empty stomach. Yes, we might decrease the pollution by many levels, but we can also get into a heating crisis like northern China did when people were unable to heat their homes.

At the same time, crossing our arms to the problem won’t help. In fact, it will lead to hundreds of thousands more deaths. According to HEI’s report, residential biomass burning related deaths are expected to double by 2050 without further political action. The study is the first to estimate the exposure from different air pollution sources state by state throughout India, helping to identify current and future nationwide burdens of disease attributable to each major source.

By doing that, the report was able to summarize actions that are already under way and suggested other actions that could be taken to improve the air quality in India. In addition to the government’s effort to increase access to solar lightning, it basically proposes the elimination of biomass, by using cleaner fuel sources, and shifting from kerosene lighting to all solar or electric. How India is gonna do that is a topic for another post, but one thing is for sure: it requires lots of willpower. Let’s see if India got it.