When I worked as an engineer in chemical plants dealing with hazardous chemicals, I never felt sick, but I do now in the winter months in Delhi-NCR. The pollution in the past few weeks has been particularly bad and the blame has been pinned on the farmers of Haryana and Punjab, who are burning crop residue. I find it amusing. If one has already over-eaten at a party and then stuffs another small portion for the road, should we point fingers at the final bite if the person vomits? If someone is walking on the edge of a cliff, and trips on a stone to fall to his death, will we blame the stone?
The quality of air in Delhi NCR has been "unhealthy" for long. A couple of years ago, my husband's routine check-up showed some spots on his chest X-ray. He was surprised, but the doctor was not. "This is very common. I see this in over 70 percent of healthy individuals due to the pollution in the air. Avoid walking on the streets," the doctor said very calmly.
Now the damage is no longer sub-clinical and many of us are experiencing physical discomfort like burning eyes, headaches, breathing trouble and so on.
The historical data of AQI (air quality index) confirms this. The final blow has come from the crop burning issue which has pushed the air quality from being unhealthy or very unhealthy category to its extreme "hazardous" category.
Now the damage is no longer sub-clinical and many of us are experiencing physical discomfort like burning eyes, headaches, breathing trouble and so on. A time has come, when we need signboards, saying, "You will be healthier if you don't exercise."
Facebook is full of advisories like – "stay indoors and stay safe". How about the daily wage labor, the bus drivers, the delivery boys and so on, who have to toil on the streets? For how long do we think the indoor air will stay isolated?
Who is to blame?
We have found a good scapegoat in the farmers. Interestingly, we turn a blind eye when the same farmers ply overloaded tractors carrying construction materials on national highways and city roads. The tractors breakdown often and cause traffic jams that cause pollution. No one talks about this.
We, the city people have to burn diesel for our DG sets to make up for the shortage of electricity supply. We have to use motorcycles and cars, as the public transport is pathetic. The industries have to use diesel run commercial vehicles for even long distance transport, as our railways are unreliable and inefficient. A few news reports have mentioned that 70 percent of the total 22000 three wheelers (auto rikshaws) in Gurgaon still run on diesel and not on CNG .
Even the light commercial vehicles (LCVs) used typically for the last mile delivery do not have the option of running on petrol or CNG. Broken roads and random traffic with no regard for rules leads to jams and severe pollution. Even without looking at the data of exhaust fumes, anyone who has driven or walked behind a diesel commercial vehicle can testify to the choking feeling. Several factories that do not meet the emission standards continue to run for the reasons best known to the authorities. The garbage mounds near the city limits are growing taller by the day for the lack of proper waste management methods. In case they catch fire during the bad air season, it makes headlines. The list is ever growing. If the whole country runs on "jugaad", why can the farmers not find their own ways to deal with the lack of infrastructure and systems for maximizing their profits?
Anyone who has driven or walked behind a diesel commercial vehicle can testify to the choking feeling.
Have we set-up the mechanism (physical and financial incentives) for collecting the agriculture waste and using it for power production? The technology is well- established and many domestic companies have the capability of setting up these units, yet the same issue recurs every year. Have we ever stopped the farmers when they bring their off-road tractors on the streets? How can we now expect them to start following some environmental guidelines? With some patchy steps like "bans" and nature's kindness, the air quality moves from being "hazardous" to "unhealthy", and we consider it an acceptable improvement.Delhi makes the headlines, but most of our densely populated cities already have unhealthy air. Do we need data to support this? A short walk on the streets will be enough.
We are staring at the tip of the iceberg and looking for magic solutions without addressing the 80 percent of the ice-mass that is below the surface. The residents of apartment complexes pay at least three times the price of the regular power supply for their DG electricity to get uninterrupted power. People spend a lot more money on their private transport as the alternatives are pathetic. So, the argument of lack of funds to fix the root causes is ill founded. The only thing that is lacking is the political will and a system that wants to address the fundamentals and execute the solutions.
The residents of apartment complexes pay at least three times the price of the regular power supply for their DG electricity to get uninterrupted power.
We have been living with the bad quality of water supply for at least three decades and have found a solution in the home water-purification devices. The population that does not have the means has learnt to live with the diseases. With millions of tons of plastic waste choking our water resources, the problem has reached epic proportions, but there is no action in sight.
I hope that the pathetic air quality does not become an acceptable norm like the poor water quality and fuel the growth of new industries like air-purifiers, masks, oxygen cylinders, oxygen bars, oxygen gyms, new wellness clinics, more hospitals and so on.
Economic growth and clean environment can co-exist if we think holistically instead of the quick fixes. We need to stop believing the stories fed to us and work towards reclaiming our fundamental right of pure air, pure water, and unadulterated food.
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