Thursday, Jun 01, 2023

Solutions To Air Pollution: It's Time To Be Aimers, Not Blamers

Solutions To Air Pollution: It's Time To Be Aimers, Not Blamers

While not even death certificates give air pollution as cause, crores of Indians suffer from breathing trouble

Negotiated necessities

Devesh died. At 28, he was looking towards a brighter life for self and family. He died of lung cancer. The end came fast after the discovery of Stage 4 cancer. Being a non-smoker and a person of simple habits, he could not believe when he understood his days were numbered. The family lived in a lane with furnaces on both sides of it, where he would often play while growing up. Bad luck, you would say.

Except that he is one among 1.7 million peo­ple who die from air pollution in India, one in 7 million who die across the globe, eve­ry year. That includes Ella from UK, who became the first recorded child to die from air pollution. In India, we don’t keep such records. If all these do not rattle you, what will?

Air pollution does not affect the economically disadvantaged alone. It affects all. It affects eve­ry part of the body. Death certificates do not specify air pollution as the cause. We don’t und­erstand its gravity. Crores in India suffer each day from asthma, COPD and other breat­hing disorders caused by air pollution. We call it seasonal or occasional problem, and live by it. Employers hardly understand that problems of employees’ health deplete their business wea­lth. The tragedy of misconception continues.

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Why do the poor suffer the most?

Dust and smoke are constant companions in and around their dwellings, commute and work­places. No eyebrows raised, no questions asked as it’s considered a way of life. The poison accumulates in the body slowly before rev­ealing its true colours.

Making a living is considered much more imp­ortant than life itself. Precautions are kept at bay in activities and vocations that could be dangerous. A study of open cast mines in an Ind­ian state shows that average age of miners is just 42. There are plenty of risky vocations in the MSME and formal sectors. Feeding the fam­ily and making an earning often leads to ign­orant pursuits. Personal habits affect them too and make them vulnerable. Smoking in all forms, for instance. Passive smokers around them suffer as well. The smoke stays within their poorly ventilated homes, in clothes and fabric, getting exposed to their children.

ALSO READ: Efforts To Clean Up Delhi’s Air Must Continue Through The Year Not Just During Winter

Traditional cooking using wood/coal-fired chulha is a bigger villain. Men may consider that food is tastier when cooked on a chulha. The credit should actually go to the cook and her skills, as she suffers the most. The smoke coming out of a chulha makes her inhale pollu­ted air equivalent to 100 cigarettes a day. The kids and the elderly too get affected. Even tho­ugh a shift to cooking gas is publicised, old habits die hard. Wood, coal and cowdung cakes are easily available and cheap. The head of the fam­ily ignores the cost and pain when suffering from air pollution strikes.

Burning of garbage and horticultural remains is rampant. Winter also sees the homeless bur­n­ing old tyres for heat, releasing noxious fumes.

A recent study by the Lung Care Foundation has highlighted the dangers of asthma to public school children in Delhi, compared to other cities in southern India. Awareness levels were found to be low and so was the regular intake of medicines. Imagine the result if this kind of stu­dy is carried out in rural India and urban slums.

ALSO READ: Right To Breathe | Air Pollution: When Will Our Politicians Wake Up?

Absence of routine health check-ups even at ill-­equipped free government healthcare facilities due to paucity of time compelled by the need to make a living, adds to the troubles. Much more than suffering the impact of air pol­l­ution beca­use of their own actions or inact­i­ons, the poor are affe­cted by the apathy and ind­ifference of governments, industry and other stakeholders. When the meter for PM10 reads 25 in the UK, it makes front-page news. In Delhi-­NCR, a meter reading that breaks the mon­itor’s 999 limit several times a year, does not make the headlines or provoke outrage. No one realises that we are in a way going through Ver 2.0 of the Bhopal gas tragedy. Making cosmetic announcements and public displays cannot solve the problem, nor can erecting smog towers or other ideas copied from failed experiments in China. Solving the problem at source is more important than letting it happen and then thinking of spending huge public mon­ey to ameliorate the situation. It’s time for public and private bodies to come tog­e­ther and take action.

What could be the way forward?

Make poor people partners in facing and solving air pollution issues. At Lung Care Founda­tion, we believe in awareness—awakening and actions. Our guideline—Dus Kadam (10 steps)—that people can initiate in their neighbour­ho­ods and workplaces, is getting acc­e­p­ted and adopted within communities we work with.

ALSO READ: High Density Population Adds To The Woes Of Pollution In Delhi Slums During Winter

Employers should make employee wellbeing part of their business strategy and not just give lip-service at seminars. Healthy employees can enhance the wealth of businesses much more.

Use the power of youth to promote solutions and convince people for timely actions. They will inherit the future. They should demand a better one from their apathetic leaders.

Start installing monitors to evaluate the state of air pollution in every city and village. Share the information. This shall propel people to take note and enhance responsibility.

Enough of talking about a “smart way forward for SMART cities”. Specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound goals should be rolled out as an emergency. Make slackers pay for their profligacy.

ALSO READ: Show, Don’t Tell: With 'Lungs Billboard', See How Filthy Is The Air You Breathe

We also need to increase the level of goals acc­o­m­plished. The National Clean Air Plan of red­uc­i­ng air pollution by 20-30 per cent by 2024 is too little. A decrease of 30 per cent from an AQI of 200 will take us to an AQI of 140, which is still many times above Indian and WHO standards.

The poor need to stop asking for free water, electricity, subsidies and freebies. All this has no meaning when health suffers. It is time to demand air pollution control as part of election manifestos and ensure that every party is committed to producing tangible results.

Solutions to air pollution are not new or unk­n­own. All powerful ideas need powerful exe­cu­tion. A powerful commitment by one and all pre­cedes the impact. It is time to be aimers and not blamers.

(This appeared in the print edition as "The Mask Over Our Failures")

(Views expressed are personal)


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Rajiv Khurana is an international management consultant and founder-trustee at Lung Care Foundation