The just released WHO report (2010 – 2016) on global air pollution database shows that 14 of the most polluted cities in the world are all Indian cities. The honor (or shall I say dishonor) of bagging this notorious distinction goes to India. No other country comes close to the feat exhibited by India. This bit of information might make us jump out of our seats out of a sense of uneasiness and disbelief at first. Spare a thought for a moment, but it hardly evinces any surprise or shock? Why is it so? Did we know it all along? Have we developed thick skin on matters pertaining to environment degradation that nothing can unsettle or rattle us anymore? For a nation of humongous numbers of everything and faced with such existential crisis of sorts, the content of the report is not quite unexpected or alien. Rampant industrialization, crazy deforestation, lax environment protection laws and insensitive government is a perfect recipe for total disaster. The people can at best be described as ignorant, unaware and oblivious of any consideration about worsening air quality as majority are destitute. The story of destitute people totally consumed in daily rigor to earn their daily bread can just not be about saving the environment but about saving their children from going hungry and securing a few pennies for their basal survival. Poor people cannot be pushed or forced into adopting expensive environment friendly methods to satisfy their energy needs.
There goes a casual remark that nowadays ‘people are dying of cancers or that cancers are on the rise and the deceased was a teetotaler and pure vegetarian, how could he die of cancer?’ Most fail to link the apparently obvious cause of death which is prevalent and persistent pollution. In my previous article titled ‘Pollution – awareness is the first step towards curbing it’ I had mentioned that pollution is not just the visible smoke emanating from the exhaust pipes and chimneys but excess of invisible minute pollutants of the variety called as PM 10 and PM 2.5. Long term exposure to high pollution levels has been found to be associated with premature deaths due to cancers, respiratory and coronary diseases. WHO found that in 2016 alone, at least 7 million deaths have occurred worldwide due to pollution. In all probability, this number could only increase since such data more often than not goes unreported or the cause of death not linked to pollution. In our country, it has been years that the situation has been allowed to continue unchecked with deleterious repercussions. In a way the disaster is completely a making of our own and thus totally avoidable. The destitute people are at a greater risk as they are the ones who pay a higher cost of pollution in the shape of chronic bad health and premature deaths. The problem becomes acute in the winters when the heavy smog hangs near the ground and does not clear out until the winds blow and the sun shines brightly. Throat and nasal infections rise disproportionately due to inhalation of pollutants that choke the respiratory passage. Don’t make the mistake of believing it to be anything less than a national health crisis for only then will we hunt for permanent and durable solutions. What surprises me is that still there is no credible action in spite of the alarming situation that we find ourselves in. Every time there is a breach of safe pollution levels, the blame game between agencies and states begins. I fail to understand, if deaths cannot move government to action, then what can?
The extant situation is the result of systemic failure on part of the government to check indiscriminate growth of inefficient ways, and non-provision of other efficient and environment friendly ways as also their non-committal and casual attitude to protect the precious environment. Caring for the environment seems to be our last priority, though things have just recently started changing for the better. But still a lot needs to be done in this direction to reverse the damage already caused in the decades of neglect. The half-baked initiatives at mitigating and containing the pernicious effects of pollution have always lagged behind those required to effectively tackle the problem. Consequently, the present situation does not only ring small bells in our ears but big gongs that should unnerve us completely and wake us from deep slumber. The situation represents an epoch of inaction on part of our political class. The feigned state of unconsciousness, oblivion and blindness of those in the driving seat should end now. It is a desperate situation that requires drastic measures to tackle the problem on a war footing. But does the government care or understand the complexity as well as its complicity in the making of the problem in the first place? The government has never been serious and still does not appear to be serious after so much has happened? Does the government not realise what is at stake? The national health policy recognizes very clearly how the current level of pollution adversely affects the health of all the citizens, especially the children and the elderly, exposed to such elevated levels of pollution. The national health policy is in no state to survive the onslaught of egregious effects of air pollution. The problem has now become humongous that looks highly intimidating. It threatens to pose a grave risk to our lives. Ostensibly, our agencies have given up their will to fight that is quite evident from their inaction. Whenever the citizens raise their voices, a little action is exhibited just to silence them. Recognising, the seriousness of the problem, our courts have intervened and have been overseeing the efforts at alleviating the problem.
If I remember correctly, it has been over three years that the problem had been sounded when the odd-even scheme of rationing of private cars was taken up for the first time in Delhi. Since then a lot has been said, written and reported and yet nothing much worthwhile has been implemented wholeheartedly and with full earnestness. The problem continues, albeit some lesser degree. We have not been able to stop the burning of crop residue by providing alternate ways to the farmers to dispose of the crop remnants. Graded response action plan, GRAP is in the nascent stage and is yet to be taken seriously. Private cars are out on the roads in hordes with full fury.
One surprising thing that has been enunciated in the WHO report is that the pollution levels have spiked in the last 2 to 3 years. What is not clear is that instead of alleviation albeit after many seemingly half-baked efforts, why did the pollution level go up instead of coming down? One plausible reason could be that the country did not have enough pollution monitoring stations prior to 2015 and hence pollution could not have been monitored. But now it is being measured and data captured which explains the rise.
India is a developing country and developmental work will create challenges to controlling air pollution. Are there no other countries that have gone through the same predicament as we are witnessing today? The city of London was far more polluted in the 1950s than present day Delhi. Beijing was also worse a couple of years back. If these cities could change, so can we. This is the kind of resolve we want our governments to harbor only then will the situation improve for better. Can we learn from them if we can’t think of creative solutions to our problem? Is it so difficult to break the pollution code? I am a total loss to understand, why can’t we invite the best people in the world to solve it for us.
One thing that has stood in the way of a healthy future of all citizens is the agencies’ disinterest and unwillingness to make a resolve to solve our problems. It is a people’s movement in which we have to fight till the end and win it too.