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Beyond Knee-Jerk Measures

Beyond Knee-Jerk Measures

The writing on the wall is clear that if measures are not taken on a war-footing to improve the quality of atmospheric air, the health of the people of Delhi and its neighbouring satellite cities will take a severe beating.

For the past few days before and after Diwali, with smoky haze lingering in the atmosphere, the urban air quality has been deteriorating. Four criteria pollutants are routinely monitored (suspended particulate matter, respirable suspended particulate matter, i.e. PM10, oxides of nitrogen, oxides of sulphur). With twenty-two of the 37 air quality monitoring stations across Delhi recording the air quality in the severe category, yes, the alarm bells are ringing rather loudly. 

Well, do you all know that the right to live in a clean and healthy environment today has attained the status of a fundamental right? The worsening air pollution or the recent haze over Delhi/National Capital Region (attributed to a host of factors ranging from adverse meteorological conditions like low temperature, poor wind speed and low mixing height) has been debated several times.

Other contributory causes include road dust, vehicular emissions, construction and demolition activities, unabated use of fossil-fuel powered gensets, fire-crackers, brick kiln plants etc.

Continued burning of paddy straw every year during October-November and wheat in April in the neighbouring states of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, despite being banned, is a cause for serious concern.

Consequently the atmospheric air gets foul due to the presence of respirable suspended particulate matter (complex mixture of suspended solid and liquid particles in semi equilibrium) with surrounding gases that includes elemental carbon, metals/elements like silicon, magnesium, iron, ions like sulphate, nitrates, ammonium etc.

Then there are fine particulate matter ( PM2.5) mainly comprising of carbonaceous materials, sulphate, nitrate, ammonium, iron, aluminum, nickel, copper, zinc and lead. When it’s levels in air increases, being an air pollutant, the visibility gets considerably reduced and the air appears hazy. 

These small particles, however, less than 100 nm (nanoparticles) can get into the bloodstream, affect the cardiovascular system and cause oxidative stress respiratory symptoms such as irritation of the airways, coughing/difficulty in breathing, decreased lung function, aggravated asthma, chronic bronchitis, irregular heartbeat, cardio-pulmonary disorder and even premature death in people with heart or lung disease.

It is not just in India; air pollution is still a crisis around the world. In London alone more than one person an hour dies prematurely from a range of conditions such as congestive heart failure, asthma and emphysema as a result of exposure to particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.

There has been much learning following the toxic smog of London which killed a whopping 12000 people almost 65 years ago. Broadly, it did result in thorough investigations into the causes of air pollution in order to effect changes to the chemical processes that likely caused the smog besides influence improvements in combustion engines to eliminate smoke emissions and notably create an alert system to enable vulnerable people protect themselves better during such adverse weather. Subsequently the ground-breaking Clean Air Act was passed in 1956 which has since been repealed and replaced with a more comprehensive Clean Air Act in 1993.

The challenges posed by the smog led to a series of concerted steps towards protecting the environment by regulating both domestic/industrial smoke emissions, establishing smokeless zones and providing subsidies to householders to convert to cleaner fuels (smokeless solid fuel, gas and electricity).

Similarly in the US, the Clean Air Act which has been in vogue since 1963 has proved to be a remarkable success. An assessment made twenty years later (in 1983) reportedly found that more than 200,000 premature deaths and 18 million cases of respiratory illness in children were prevented. Importantly the dividends for investing in anti-pollution measures is appreciable because for every dollar spent on pollution control, the benefits accrued in human health was $40 in return.

Ambient air pollution, according to the World Health Organisation, is responsible for an estimated 4.2 million deaths per year due to stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and chronic respiratory diseases. With around 91% of the world’s population living in places where air quality levels exceed WHO prescribed limits, its health consequences are mind-boggling literally. Globally a n estimated 18,000 people die every day on account of air pollution. A recent US study found that smog kills more than four thousand people in China every day. Notably, ambient air pollution worldwide accounts for 29% of all deaths and disease from lung cancer; 17% of all deaths and disease from acute lower respiratory infection; 24% of all deaths from stroke; 25% of all deaths and disease from ischaemic heart disease and 43% of all deaths and disease from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Foul air gets fouler when waste remains untreated. In Delhi alone, according to reports, there are three landfill sites at Bhalswa, Ghazipur and Okhla. It is disconcerting that the Ghazipur landfill site has reached as high as 65 metres and is just 8 metres less than the height of Qutub Minar. Untreated waste is still being dumped into the other two landfill sites which have also been declared exhausted. Incidents of landfill fires at these sites, which have also been spewing toxic gases, seem to compound Delhi’s pollution woes.

Although awareness on environmental protection is gradually picking up momentum in India, amidst challenges, the judiciary has always lent a helping hand to environmental activists in their efforts to combat pollution. Importantly, while disposing the Virendra Gaur and Others vs State of Haryana and Others case on 24 November 1994, a Division Bench of the Apex Court observed that “Article 21 protects right to life as a fundamental right. Enjoyment of life and its attainment including their right to life with human dignity encompasses within its ambit, the protection and preservation of environment, ecological balance free from pollution of air and water, sanitation without which life cannot be enjoyed. Any contra acts or actions would cause environmental pollution. Environmental ecological, air, water, pollution, etc. should be regarded as amounting to violation of Article 21. Therefore, hygienic environment is an integral facet of right to healthy life and it would be impossible to live with human dignity without a humane and healthy environment”.

Suffice to say that had effective steps been taken in line with the above said 25-year-old order of the top Court by those responsible, many of our citizens would be able to lead a dignified life instead of living with avoidable pollution induced diseases and grasping for breath.

There are many centrally sponsored programmes under implementation that are aimed at mitigating pollution which is not discussed here. It is a formidable task indeed to combat pollution but not impossible. Offsetting the adverse impact of air pollution which severely impacts our economy including tourism, railways, civil aviation, etc., can pay rich dividends. Dealing with pollution effectively can help in overcoming late running of trains or cancellation of flights on account of poor visibility.

Findings of a recent Air Quality-Life Index study undertaken by the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute suggests that if India meets the national Air Quality Standards or WHO standards, overall there would be gain in terms of life expectancy of our people.

Citizens of Delhi/NCR could probably live nine years longer if WHO prescribed air quality norms are strictly followed. Likewise, those living in Kolkata and Mumbai could live roughly 3.5 years longer. On an average if the WHO Air Quality standards are met across the country our people could live four years longer.

To live a life with dignity, devoid of pollution induced health consequences, everyone at the community and household level has to be involved in making our surroundings a better place to live. At the macro level, beyond knee-jerk measures, there is an imperative necessity to look towards dealing with air pollution effectively.

(Published on 04th November 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 45)