Is our future going up in smoke?
It has been exactly two and half months since the New York Times, South Asia correspondent wrote a woeful story about our capital’s toxic air and have finally fled the country in order to safeguard the health of his 8-year-old son, Bram. His story attracted much attention and re-opened the debate on Delhi’s deadly air like never before! It was followed by a clutch of expats leaving the country, painting it as a toxic hotspot and possibly the most dangerous place for children to live on. Delhi has been consistently topping the charts for its poor air quality over the years, last winter, the particulate pollution levels in the city soared at 15times the Indian safety limits, making it particularly unhealthy for children and the elderly. According to the Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute, half of Delhi’s 44 lakh children suffer from poor lung functioning and are likely to grow up into adults with irreversible lung damage.
Early this year, the worsening situation in the city combined with the Govt’s inaction on the rising pollution levels prompted the Supreme Court of India along with the Delhi High Court to issue notices to both the Center as well as the State to clean up the city’s air. As a result, the Govt did make efforts to improve the air-quality monitoring processes and has also developed mobile –based APPs to inform the people about the quality of air. Sadly though, due to the inconsistency in the availability of data and the lack of user-friendly ways to communicate the information, their efforts have made little difference to the lives of Delhiites. There is absolutely no information available on the necessary precautionary measures to be taken on a heavy pollution day and the citizens of Delhi continue to lack the power to make informed choices based on the pollution levels.
17 February 2015
Air pollution monitoring at Delhi Police Public School, Safdarjung Enclave © Sudhanshu Malhotra
While Delhi remains a stand-alone case in its fight for clean air, the rest of India seems not very far behind. According to the WHO, 13 of the 20 most polluted cities are in India and most of India’s mega cities are also choking on toxic fumes. This is a rather hapless reality that most of us are being subjected to on a day-to-day basis. Most cities in India, including those such as Mumbai, Bangalore and Kolkata have little or no air quality monitoring being done on a regular basis to even estimate the scale of the crisis. The WHO’s data has further revealed that air pollution is the fifth largest killer in India with an estimated premature death toll of 620,000 people annually. This is an extremely dire situation for us all to be in; it is clearly stating that Indian cities are facing a public health emergency and the public and the media are simply clueless on the extent of the problem in these cities.
In an attempt to tackle this looming air pollution crisis across the country, the Govt has launched a National Air Quality Index in April this year. The Index was launched with a primary objective to inform the public of the quality of air they are breathing, but this effort has by far been rendered null and void. Lack of consistency in information and non-availability of it in public domain continue to keep the citizens in the dark.
Up until last year, the Chinese capital—Beijing has been ranked as the world’s most polluted and China’s cities were known for some of the most toxic air in the world. However, the pollution levels have been on a declining trend across China as a result of consistent and systematic Govt action. The citizens of China called upon their leaders to act in order to safe guard their health and their environment. China today has a National Clean Air Action Plan with a clear cut, time-bound targets to reduce the pollutants in the air. This is a clear victory of people and their right to breathe safe. If the Chinese can, we can too! Stay tuned to see what we can all do together to ensure that clean air, indeed, does remain our birth right.
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Aishwarys Madineni is a climate & energy campaigner at Greenpeace India