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Air Pollution Is A Public Health Emergency

Air pollution is causing serious damage to the health of people, especially in the big cities, yet not much has been done about it so far

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Air Pollution, especially in the NCR, has become a matter of very serious concern as it affects the health of all citizens – particularly children and the elderly. Even though it is a perennial problem, it makes headlines only from around October to January. Noises are louder when the winter fog sets in – made worse by air pollution –  and disrupts flights and even trains; then everyone forgets about the matter because the AQI (air quality index) moves from ‘hazardous’ to ‘moderate’.

For decades, we have not seen ‘satisfactory AQI   days’ beyond ten to fifteen days in a year. We can only dream of ‘good air days’ – AQI < 50! Stubble burning adds to the woes. So the hue and cry about an ineffective ban on Diwali crackers, some lip service about the mythical ‘green crackers’ and of course, political wrangling over stubble burning. It is unfortunate that a problem that actually exists throughout the year is treated as a seasonal one and all energy is dissipated on just these two issues. Soon it is ‘business as usual’ – and we forget about the criminal business of polluting the air we breathe to live. Presence of diplomats, bureaucrats and senior politicians – who breathe the same foul air – causes more Press coverage in Delhi than anywhere else.

Even the apex court shows lot of “impatience” with the pathetic situation but rightly hesitates to issue any serious bans because the honourable judges realise the (a) unsustainability of a drastic ban like that on stubble burning and (b) absence of a serious holistic study of the various sources of air pollution and their scientific apportionment. The Honourable Supreme Court did flag the matter and an MOU was signed between the Delhi government and IIT Kanpur, for a comprehensive source-apportionment study. However, not much is known about any progress.

There are multiple sources of air pollution and crop stubble burning is only one of them. Perennial sources in the region are road and construction dust and exhaust from vehicles as well as lakhs of small and large diesel generators; there are also millions of small fires from burning of twigs, lit by the poor to keep themselves warm in harsh winters. Large numbers of private security guards, without adequate woollens, are forced to join the small twigs-fire brigade. The tragic situation – causing immense damage to the health of people, needs a holistic approach which only the central government can initiate, fund and monitor.

It is a public health emergency that deserves immediate resolution and rigorous action on the lines of a pandemic control like drive. We do not realise that people are dying due to air pollution. Innocent children run the danger of compromised lungs for life and also damage to their eyes. Several hospitals, including AIIMS, have repeatedly reported that grossly increased numbers of breathing stressed and asthmatic kids keep coming to them and the figures rise hugely during the lethal four-month period.

There are solutions – some simple others long-term and difficult –  for tackling all the contributors to this mayhem. Construction dust will reduce sharply if (a) all building materials are adequately covered and sufficient water is regularly sprayed on sand, bricks and gravel etc. (b) all builders use pre-mixed concrete and preferably pre-fabricated sections from large factories located far from the cities. Strictly enforced control on PUC certificates of all vehicles can help in reducing emissions. Diesel Vehicles and Gensets can also be made significantly cleaner with the mandatory use of ‘catalytic converters’. The only resolution of the Twigs-Fires is the provision of more shelters for the homeless poor and adequate woollens for the night guards. Finally, ‘stubble burning’ should cease to remain a volleyball being tossed from one state government to the other.

Several solutions have been found by young engineers. But, none of these will ever be implemented by the poor, marginalised farmers. These have to be done by the state governments involved. Actually, going down to the root cause, owners of such small land parcels just cannot be successful. The now-repealed ‘farm laws’ would have facilitated consolidation by corporates and cooperatives. And, instead of asking the farmers to sell their holdings, they could be made stakeholders who would share the gains. As for Diwali crackers – and those on festivals of other religions – only our religious leaders can sway the people away from those.

All this is doable – if the government at the Centre has the will and determination. This government has brought about several more difficult changes – surely they can do this too.

Interestingly, Sunday Times of 26 March carries a report about an ambitious new initiative of the GOI, under which they plan to create a 1,400 km long and five km wide 'Green Wall' as a buffer around the Aravallis mountain range covering parts of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi. This buffer zone, with an estimated area of seven million hectares, includes nearly 2.3 million hectares of mostly degraded land. The ‘green wall’ should, in due course, be of immense help in cleaning up the air in many cities of the region.

At 70,000 square km – assuming one tree needs a liberal 36 square metres space (6mx6m) – the proposed area will have nearly an astonishing two billion trees! That is a huge addition to our forest cover, restoration of a large tract of degraded land and an additional 2.5 billion tonnes of 'carbon sink'. It will also increase the bio-diversity of the Aravallis, improve the soil fertility, water availability and climate resilience of the region. It will also help local communities with employment opportunities.

I sincerely hope and pray the project takes off asap and succeeds.

The author is President NAAI and Member National Advisory Board SARTHAK

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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air pollution magazine 22 April 2023

Krishan Kalra

The author is President NAAI and Member National Advisory Board SARTHAK

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