There’s one thing almost all parents love more than their own lives: the lives of their children. The challenge, as the discourse on air pollution shows, is too often, they stay focussed only on their own children. The lives of other young people matter very little. In 2019, I witnessed an intense debate amongst Delhi region parents on WhatsApp. They wanted schools to be shut down during the peak pollution weeks, because their children were forced to go to school, breathing in the terrible quality air as they studied. They had a good point, because most schools don’t purify the air.
But their logic didn’t work for another group of parents I knew well. These were a few hundred women on a landfill. They were very worried to learn that schools might give a pollution holiday. Their key fears were also related to safety. How were they supposed to leave their children at home and go off to work? A domestic worker was worried about her daughters’ safety—she preferred her in the polluted school. Several other mothers pointed out that missing the mid-day meal was a genuine blow to their children. Previously, when schools were closed due to unclean air, Chintan found that most children in informal settlements would be playing outdoors. As some of them pointed out, their single-room homes were too small to spend the day indoors. Many were alone, both their parents at work. The lack of safety, decent housing and well-paid jobs make air exposure a big challenge for the poor. But even amongst the poor, children are the most harmed.
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The complex linkages are not always easy to discern or see. Consider our urban lifestyles. Much of the resources we need—from the granite for our kitchens to the food we eat, comes from rural or industrial India, a distance away from cities. That ensures that the pollution is out of sight and therefore, out of mind. Talcher, in Odisha, is a case in point. According to Greenpeace, it is one of the world’s NOx hotspots. Even if it wasn’t a perverse topper, there is enough NOX in the air to render it not-air. The sources of this include aluminium smelting, thermal power plants and coal mines, according to a report. Such resources power our cities and middle-class lifestyles. But more than anyone else, children living in the area take on the brunt of this far-away consumption. Coal and the subsequent electricity from power plants, bring children electricity that can transform their lives. The challenge is how to consume in ways that are not harmful to other children or the planet.
According to Down to Earth, in 2019, air pollution alone killed 1,16,00 children in India. Many died due to indoor air pollution, a euphemism for using biomass for cooking. Women cook indoors, where infants also rest. Their tender lungs give up. The Ujjwala scheme, rolled out to counter precisely this form of inequity, has not yet reached some of the world’s most polluted cities, such as Delhi. A study by Chintan, Extinguishing the Smoke, showed how women users were aware of the impact of biomass on their health. As prices of LPG increase, this essential household good is rapidly turning into a luxury. Dirty fuels like these then pollute entire air sheds throughout the year, but most hauntingly, kill children. When polluted air becomes a thick, acrid vapour that burns our lungs collectively every year in late October, we cry stubble burning. This is a 6-8 week phenomenon when farmers, especially in Punjab and Haryana, burn paddy straw they cannot pull out of the land manually. They must do this in order to ready the earth for the next crop in record time. While the farmer stands vilified for growing some of the best quality commercial rice, little attention is paid to the other tragedy in lakhs of urban poor—and not poor homes. All children struggle when the air is unhealthy or worse. The poor additionally breathe in fumes from the cooking inside their homes. A win-win is possible.
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A stubble-burning farmer in Amritsar district told me that many people like him were open to shifting to crops like millets, if an assured market price was possible. He acknowledged it would fetch them less than rice, but he was OK with that. Several public goods could have been rolled out. The millets could have been used in mid-day meals for school children in both or one state, creating markets. Instead of exposing the children of both Punjab and Delhi to this toxic air, it was possible to nourish them instead. This didn’t happen. How could it have? Inclusion and acknowledging the differentiated burden of pollution is not part of mainstream middle-class discourse. It isn’t on anyone’s front burner. In this blindness, children are the hardest hit because their organs are still developing, they breathe differently, and they go out to play. A child in a shanty will additionally also inhale chulah smoke.
Air inequity might be turning into a global phenomenon. When the air in parts of California a few months ago was hit by wildfires, the wealthy did what the South Asian wealthiest do. They turned the spotlight on air purifiers and reading AQIs. They have both the financial and the educational capital to buy devices and monitor the air. The poor and the homeless just breathed it in. As wildfires sweep across wealthier countries, air pollution is becoming a global menace. At the same time, the differences between the rich and the poor that we see in Asia, is also being reproduced globally.
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By its very nature, air travels, so do the pollutants that populate it. Depending on the wind, the temperature and the topography, pollution in one place can also rapidly contaminate another. As long as unwanted molecules of toxic materials exist, nobody is safe. In that sense, it isn’t an exaggeration to draw parallels with today’s great dilemma: vaccination. Without vaccine equity, none of us are safe. When people are unhealthy, the country pays a price. In India’s case, one estimate puts it at three per cent of the GDP. Without clean air equity, all of us can expect respiratory illness that will leave us battered and impoverished. Until the poorest child breathes clean air, we are all unsafe.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Our Lives, Their Lives")
(Views expressed are personal)
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Bharati Chaturvedi is founder & director, Chintan Environmental Research & Action Group