DEADLY AIR: FACE IT

Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE -

Iknow how best to re­spond to this ques­tion. Th­ese DO NOT days, con­cerned about the toxic air of Delhi, many par­ents, par­tic­u­larly those with chil­dren who have asthma, ask me if they should leave the city. Many times, I am also told that they have de­cided to move away; they can­not take it any­more.It is a no-brainer,you would say.Af­ter all,Delhi is very pol­luted and we know from all ev­i­dence that air tox­ins are deadly for our health. There may not be any com­pre­hen­sive epi­demi­o­log­i­cal study,which con­clu­sively shows how grow­ing air pol­lu­tion in In­dian cities is adding to health bur­den,but there is enough to tell us that things are bad.Only the most diehard pol­luter—a man­u­fac­turer of diesel ve­hi­cles,for ex­am­ple—would ar­gue that the cur­rent level of air pol­lu­tion in Delhi is not haz­ardous for our health.

This past win­ter, in Novem­ber, De­cem­ber and Jan­uary, air was clas­si­fied as “se­verely pol­luted” for over 65 per cent of the days. Ac­cord­ing to the gov­ern­ment’s own air qual­ity in­dex this would mean pol­lu­tion is so bad that it would cause “res­pi­ra­tory ef­fects even on healthy peo­ple”. So why am I trou­bled in say­ing that yes, they should leave the city? Af­ter all, their health is at risk.

One, I re­alised, painfully, that it would mean ac­cept­ing de­feat. It was in the mid1990s that we started work on clean air. Then, un­like now, peo­ple did not even see the con­nec­tion with our bod­ies. When we said tiny par­ti­cles, emit­ted from diesel ve­hi­cles, could be car­cino­genic, a lead­ing au­to­mo­bile man­u­fac­turer slapped us with 100 crore defama­tion suit. But courts and gov­ern­ments worked to take de­ci­sive and dif­fi­cult ac­tion, and pol­lu­tion was checked.

Now we are back to where we started. Pol­lu­tion is ris­ing; gov­ern­ments are scram­bling to deny the ob­vi­ous and it is clear that this sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion re­form is much more dif­fi­cult. All the easy pickings—if you can call the con­tested tran­si­tion to com­pressed nat­u­ral gas (cng) in ve­hi­cles easy—are over. Now the an­swer is to re­strain the growth of cars and build con­ve­nient and mod­ern pub­lic trans­port sys­tem so that even the rich do not use their ve­hi­cles. Now the an­swer is to dras­ti­cally im­prove the qual­ity of fuel and tech­nol­ogy used in trucks or find ways for them to by­pass cities. Now the an­swer is to find more cng to use in in­dus­tries and to en­sure that there is tight en­force­ment of rules from in­sti­tu­tions that have been whit­tled away de­lib­er­ately. All this is dif­fi­cult. More dif­fi­cult than be­fore. So, should we give up? De­cide that it is im­pos­si­ble to do any­thing?

But then, I think of how Anil Agar­wal—Cen­tre for Science and En­vi­ron­ment’s founder—had re­acted to the news of his own can­cer. He in­ves­ti­gated cause and found clear links with con­tam­i­nants like pes­ti­cides. “My story to­day your story tomorrow” was his poignant ral­ly­ing call for bring­ing change in the way we spray our food with poi­son. Just be­fore his death, he set up In­dia’s first pub­lic lab­o­ra­tory to test con­tam­i­nants in our ev­ery­day life. Since then the tests done—from pes­ti­cides in soft drinks and Pun­jab farmer’s blood to an­tibi­otics in chicken—have brought home the fact that we need to re­duce our ex­po­sure to tox­ins. And even though much more needs to be done, it is good to know that Agar­wal’s fight has not been wasted. So, leav­ing should not be the ques­tion. How to fight and win this bat­tle against pol­lu­tion should be.

Se­condly, where will you go? The fact is that most of In­dia is get­ting equally pol­luted— air is equally foul but it is just not mon­i­tored. This is the dif­fer­ence be­tween Delhi and other cities. Other cities also have ev­ery­thing go­ing for pol­lu­tion cock­tail—grow­ing num­ber of diesel ve­hi­cles, poor pub­lic trans­port, weak sur­veil­lance of pol­lut­ing fac­to­ries and poverty that forces peo­ple to burn biomass in­stead of cleaner cook­ing fuel. So, where will you run away to?

This is the same when we be­lieved that the an­swer to fight­ing pol­lu­tion was to buy air pu­ri­fiers.But the fact is that pu­ri­fiers can clean only up to a limit and not all pol­lu­tants. Be­sides, we have to breathe com­mon air some­time. Yes, if you are rich you can in­stall it in your house to pro­tect your­self and your chil­dren from the worst of the harm.But it is not the an­swer be­cause not ev­ery­one is rich enough to use one.The an­swer is to clean the air.

Yes, you can run abroad where coun­tries breathe bet­ter air. But how many have that op­tion? This is what should drive us to not give up.We have to win this bat­tle—for the sake of those who have left our city and for the sake of those who stay. There is no choice.This is the an­swer.

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