The Lancet Countdown 2017 last month said air pollution had claimed as many as 2.5 million lives in India in 2015, the highest in the world. There have been other estimates as well, putting a different number to the lives lost due to air pollution.
"Ultimately these studies have to be India centric. To attribute any death to a cause like pollution, that may be too much," the minister said.
"Certainly if you have a diseased lung and if the pollution is continuously damaging your alveoli (air sacks) then one day when you die, you can attribute the cause of death, to some proportion, to maybe pollution. But I don't think we can generalise and say that millions of people are dying only due to pollution," Harsh Vardhan told NDTV in an interview.
The minister suggested that there was no need to get into such statistics of lives lost due to air pollution. "Different people will give different types of statistics. But no one can have a difference of opinion that pollution is detrimental to our health. We should be focused on that point," he said.
Dr Harsh Vardhan's comment is in contrast to his response in February this year when another global study that estimated 11 lakh deaths due to air pollution in India in 2015. He had then called air pollution a "silent killer" and a "slow poison" that could kill people, particularly children. "It can be a killer also. It can be like a slow poison. Which keeps destroying your alveoli in the lungs at a slow pace," he had then said.
But Dr Harsh Vardhan wasn't the environment minister in February. He is now. And it has been a long-held stand of the environment ministry to brush aside such reports.
The Environment Minister's stress that air pollution wasn't a killer comes at a time national capital Delhi and much of north India has been under a thick cover of toxic smog. There have also been growing calls for bigger government action to tackle what doctors called a public health emergency. One report said the deadly level of carcinogenic pollutants in Delhi's air on Wednesday was roughly 10 times the reading in Beijing, a city globally infamous for its air pollution.
On Thursday, the Delhi High Court too called the deadly cocktail of dust, pollutants and noxious gases, which has led to a 20 per cent spike in patients reporting respiratory problems at hospitals such as AIIMS, an "emergency situation". The National Green Tribunal also referred to the air pollution situation as "a bad environmental emergency".
Asked about the health emergency, the minister said it was not right to call the suffocating air in Delhi "a health emergency".
He said pollution had, however, certainly gone beyond a point which was not acceptable and would have an adverse health impact.
"There is a need for everyone to be aware about it, take precautions. But I would not like to use words like emergency (for the air pollution situation). It is an emergency in terms of the actions that you have to take," the minister, who returned from a climate change conference in Bonn this week, told NDTV on Thursday.