India's government launched a new air quality index on Monday, under intense pressure to act after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared New Delhi the world's most polluted capital.
Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said the government would publish air quality data on a website for 10 cities, amid growing public concern over the impact of air pollution on the health of India's 1.2 billion people.
"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," Javadekar said as he launched the index at a conference on the environment.
But he gave little indication of what the government would do to improve air quality, except to say it would introduce new rules on disposing of construction waste.
The dust from India's thousands of industrial and construction sites adds to the fumes from millions of vehicles to create the toxic cocktail that urban Indians breathe.
At least 3,000 people die prematurely every year in India's capital because of high exposure to air pollution, according to a joint study by Boston-based Health Effects Institute and Delhi's Energy Resources Institute.
A WHO study of 1,600 cities released last year showed Delhi had the world's highest annual average concentration of small airborne particles known as PM2.5 – higher even than the Chinese capital Beijing.
These extremely fine particles of less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter are linked with increased rates of chronic bronchitis, lung cancer and heart disease as they penetrate deep into the lungs and can pass into the bloodstream.
India disputed the WHO's assertion, but has conceded that air pollution in the capital is comparable with that of Beijing.
The government said the new index would initially cover 10 cities – Delhi, Agra, Kanpur, Lucknow, Varanasi, Faridabad, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad – each of which would have monitoring stations with Air Quality Index display boards. The aim is to eventually cover 66 cities.
India, the world's third highest emitter of greenhouse gases, has come under pressure to tackle its rapidly rising emissions since the United States and China committed last November to start cutting their own emissions.
The Indian government has said it needs to emit more to industrialize and lift millions out of poverty.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi used Monday's conference to defend India's record on pollution, saying his country had a strong tradition of protecting the environment.
"We must think of traditional ways to tackle environmental issues," he said in a speech to delegates. "There can be green solutions in our age-old traditions," he added, suggesting that Sundays could become "cycle day" on India's traffic-clogged roads.
Modi also signaled on Monday he would not bow to foreign pressure to commit to cuts in carbon emissions, instead pledging to use more clean energy and traditional methods to lead the fight against climate change.
“The world guides us on climate change and we follow them? The world sets the parameters and we follow them? It is not like that,” Modi said. “We can lead the world.”
Al Jazeera and wire services