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No animal kills itself by its own making as man/woman, the rational animal of Aristotle does! Deaths by natural calamities as well as man-made disasters are caused by the irrational activities of irresponsible people. Earthquakes, floods and tsunamis we easily dismiss as natural calamities or man-made disasters like road accidents, terrorist attacks and other cold-blooded murders that uninterruptedly annihilate human beings are all killers. While these killers are thunderous, there are other man-made killers that silently swallow millions of humans and other living organisms in nature. One of such silent killers is pollution.

Pollution, the contamination of the environment by the presence of unwanted, harmful stuff has become the most lethal environmental problems of the post-modern industrialized world. “Environment” comprises of air, water and land all interrelated wherein humans, flora and fauna and all living creatures co-habit. “Environmental pollutant” can be any solid, liquid or gaseous substances that are injurious to environment and human beings due to its chemical or physico-chemical properties. A high concentration of such hazardous substances create imbalance in environment and when mixed in air, water or land they are a threat to all life forms. Pollution throws up various diseases that kills human beings, damages crops, soil, plants and trees, endangers birds and animals, obstructs travel, pollutes water sources like lakes, rivers and streams. A new research by the World Health Organization has found that a majority of the world population lives in places where air pollution breaches official safety limits killing millions by heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections caused by the particles, known as PM2.5 and PM10 (Particulate Matter), a sum of all solid and liquid particles suspended in air which are hazardous.

As per a recent study by the World Health Organization (WHO) 90 percent of the world breathe bad air. Nine out of 10 people globally breathe poor quality air and WHO calls pollution “A Public Health Emergency”. Air pollution kills more than 6 million people a year-almost 11.6 percent of all global death. Nearly 90 percent of these deaths occur in low and middle income countries. India’s air is worst among mega cities. With four Indian cities figuring in the top seven most polluted cities in the world, green bodies in the country today said air pollution is now a "national crisis" and strict and aggressive action is needed to check it. The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has called for more aggressive and stringent action across all cities to check pollution. "India urgently needs a national air quality planning to ensure that all cities have clean air action plan that are implemented in a time-bound manner to meet clean air target,” it said. 

WHO has categorized air pollution as the sixth biggest cause of deaths in India, triggering an alarm with studies showing breathing ailments were on the rise in Indian cities. India as per the recent findings of WHO owns half of world’s 20 most polluted cities, with capital Delhi placed in 11th position.  This is indicative of the industrial and vehicular pollution choking large parts of the country with little oversight or monitoring mechanism. The Capital has happily escaped its dubious distinction as world’s most polluted city as it has dropped to 11th position with smaller towns galloping past Delhi to grab higher position albeit disgraceful. The top spot is taken by the Iranian city of Zabol that falls in the middle of a dust bowl. Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh and Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh take the second and third spot, respectively. Uttar Pradesh has four of the world’s 20 most polluted cities. Other than Allahabad, the other UP cities in the top 20 are Kanpur (15), Firozabad (17) and Lucknow (18). Bihar’s capital Patna is sixth, Chhattisgarh’s capital Raipur seventh, Punjab towns of Ludhiana and Khanna are 12th and 16th respectively. Uttar Pradesh has largest number of polluted cities followed by Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

India’s enthusiasm for ‘smart cities’ cannot be oblivious of the silent killer lurking in the air, creating myriad public health problems and public transport nightmare. Recently, the Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database claimed that India’s upcoming towns and cities were grappling with toxic air perhaps because of limited government intervention and spiralling vehicular jamming. The last 15 years India’s pollution watchdog data show mounting air pollution in smaller cities such as Gwalior, Allahabad, Kanpur, Jodhpur, Ludhiana and Bhopal has outpaced that in big metro cities. As Greenpeace India asserts, “Air pollution is a national crisis and demands a concerted national action plan in response."

Despite the dismal pollution scenario in India there is room for optimism. The number of Indian cities in the list of the world's 20 most polluted cities had come down to 10 from 13 in 2014. Early this month saw a good call to curb air pollution – The Graded Response Plan, one of the comprehensive and stringent strategies adopted globally during severe  air pollution days submitted by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to the  Supreme Court. A CPCB official, who helped frame the graded response system had this to say: "Our action plan covers National Capital Region (NCR)-specific emission sources such as waste burning, traffic congestion and construction dust. We are waiting for SC's order after which the ministry will decide on when this will be notified." The environment ministry will notify the plan under the Environment Protection Act so that it has legal backing to be enforced in NCR. The SC-mandated Environment Pollution Control Authority EPCA will be responsible for overseeing the enforcement of the plan.

Some of the main causes of pollution include industrial emissions, poor disposal of wastes, mining, deforestation, use of fossil fuels and agricultural activities. The fumes sent out by reckless driving of heavy vehicles and power stations create acid rain. The formation of polluting gases by mindless burning of oil, gas and coal, careless dumping of litter in the environment, oils spills, chemical waste from factories, sewage works and artificial fertilizers from farmland pollute sea water and kill marine life. The use of plastic has created another garbage ocean that needs to be tackled by following the rules of right waste management.

Then there is the other killer who can’t be called silent – ‘noise pollution’. Excessive noise really does take a toll on our health. As per WHO’s calculation, noise pollution is an environmental killer second only to air pollution affecting approximately 3000 people a year in Europe.  “Noise pollution won’t have you raising the dead so much as joining them”. As per medical experts, noise pollution could have an effect on our hearts even while we are asleep. It raises stress levels, increases blood pressure, creates sleep disturbance, loss of hearing, learning impairments in children, and leaves detrimental effect on mental and emotional wellbeing.

Pollution in general is an unwelcome by-product of the blind, frenzied technological development. Every metropolitan city has its dark belly of stinking slums where unhygienic life style is a given pattern. It’s no exaggeration to say that ‘modern technology owes ecology an apology’. For, anything else one is interested in is not going to happen if one can’t breathe the air and drink water. Pollution is poisoning our environment in every form; noise, heat and light. It is harmful for every living organism on the earth. Making sustainable changes and choices in our lifestyle can help reduce pollution.

Pope Francis’s Encyclical on the environment Laudato si' has sent out strong messages meant for environment  protection mainly from pollution and careful use of natural resources: "Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices. All of these reflect a generous and worthy creativity which brings out the best in human beings. Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it, when done for the right reasons, can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity. (#211)

(Published on 12nd December 2016, Volume XXVIII, Issue 50)#