Alarming levels of Air and Water pollution affecting health of every Indian

These 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 extremely 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 mid-
1990s 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.
Even more difficult than it was 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.

(The article has been written by Dr. Sunita Narain, DG, Centre for Science and
Environment (CSE))

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