New Delhi, Jul 4: Expressing concern over "unchecked air pollution", the Congress alleged on Thursday that the Narendra Modi government has launched an "all-out war" on India's environmental protection norms and prioritised the "profits of the PM's friends" over the health of people.

Congress general secretary, in-charge communications, Jairam Ramesh said a new study published in the prestigious global medical journal, "The Lancet Planetary Health", shows how bad this crisis is, with 7.2 per cent of all deaths in India associated with air pollution --? about 34,000 deaths each year in just 10 cities.

"Unchecked air pollution is killing tens of thousands of Indians every year," Ramesh said in a statement.

Citing the report, he said Delhi is the worst affected with 12,000 deaths due to air pollution each year.

However, even cities with lower pollution levels, such as Pune, Chennai and Hyderabad, witness thousands of deaths, the former Union environment minister added.

"The study found that even lower levels of PM2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter) pollution can cause many deaths. This public health crisis is a direct result of the failures of the non-biological PM's government, which has prioritised the profits of the PM's friends over the health of India's people," he alleged.

Ramesh claimed that since 2017, the BJP-led Centre has continuously pushed back the deadline for coal power plants to install the pollution-controlling Flue Gas Desulphurisation (FGD) equipment.

"It has led to thousands of deaths, all for the profit of plant owners. Skyrocketing prices of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) cylinders have meant that indoor air pollution has worsened, as families are forced to cook on chulhas instead of cooking gas," he said.

The National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), launched in 2019 with typical fanfare, has turned out to be a "complete failure", Ramesh claimed.

"More than 50 per cent of NCAP funds were not utilised by the end of 2023. Further, as the recent Lancet study points out, the clean-air targets set by the NCAP are much too low to save lives," the Congress leader said.

Of the 131 cities under the NCAP, most do not even have the data to track their air pollution, he said.

Of the 46 cities that have the data, only eight have met the NCAP's low target, while 22 cities actually saw the air pollution problem getting worse, Ramesh said.

"The Modi government has launched an all-out war on India's environmental protection norms. The Forest Conservation (Amendment) Act of 2023 stripped protections for much of India's forests, the Biological Diversity Act and Environmental Protection Acts have been diluted, the Forest Rights Act of 2006 has been weakened, and Environmental Impact Assessment norms have been bypassed," he alleged.

"The National Green Tribunal has been made toothless, for the benefit of the PM's corporate cronies," Ramesh said further.

He called on the government to drastically increase the funds made available under the NCAP.

"The current budget, inclusive of NCAP funding and the 15th Finance Commission's grants, is about Rs 10,500 crore, spread across 131 cities! Our cities need at least 10-20 times more funding -- NCAP must be made a Rs 25,000 crore programme," he said.

The air pollution norms for the coal power plants must be enforced immediately, the Congress leader demanded.

All power plants must install the FGD equipment by the end of 2024, he said.

Ramesh also demanded that the NGT's independence be restored and the anti-people environmental-law amendments made in the last 10 years rolled back.

The NCAP must be given legal backing, an enforcement mechanism, and there should be serious data-monitoring capacity for every Indian city, beyond the current focus that is only on "non-attainment" cities, he said.

The Air Pollution (Control and Prevention) Act came into being in 1981 and the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) was put into effect in November 2009, Ramesh pointed out.

However, in the last 10 years, the public health consequences of air pollution --? in both morbidity and mortality -- have become all too evident, he said.

"It is now time for a revisit and a total revamp of both the Act and the NAAQS," the Congress leader added. PTI