26/08/2015 8:22 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Air Pollution: Why We All Need To Be Accountable

MONEY SHARMA via Getty Images
An Indian schoolchild adjusts his facemask before the start of an event to spread awareness of the problem of air pollution in New Delhi on June 4, 2015, on the eve of World Environment Day. The Indian government is under intense pressure to act after the World Health Organisation last year declared New Delhi the world's most polluted capital. At least 3,000 people die prematurely every year in the city because of air pollution, according to a joint study by Boston-based Health Effects Institute and Delhi's Energy Resources Institute. World Environment Day is marked anually on June 5. AFP PHOTO/MONEY SHARMA (Photo credit should read MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)

The air we are breathing in is poisonous.

Dramatic, isn't it? When I first started researching air quality, I found that most pieces made some version of this statement. Considering this to be an exaggeration, I decided to talk to a few friends, family members and colleagues to get a sense of their perspective on the issue. To my surprise, quite a few quoted variations of this statement: "It feels like poison", "it just doesn't feel right", "it is killing us gradually" and so on. This is in line with the concerns raised by the World Health Organization's (WHO) urban air quality index (2014), which showed Delhi's air had the highest levels of PM 2.5 (a toxic pollutant) and declared the national capital as the most polluted city in the world.

The problem: Fewer trees, more pollutants

Talk to a few elderly people who were born in Delhi and have lived most part of their lives here to get a sense of where we have reached and where we are headed. They will talk about the big parks and forest land of the city, but this green cover has been declining steadily due to development work and rapid urbanisation.

"The Global Burden of Disease Report (2013) shows that outdoor air pollution is the fifth largest cause of premature deaths in India. "

This disappearing greenery is matched by a continuous rise in the number of vehicles in the capital. A white paper on air pollution in Delhi by the Ministry of Environment and Forests points out that vehicular pollution contributes to 67% of the total air pollution load (approximately 3,000 mt per day) in Delhi. The problem is further exacerbated when we consider the continuous rise in the number of vehicles in the city and the quality of fuels we use in our vehicles. According to the Delhi Economic Survey 2013, the vehicular population in Delhi has registered a 135.59% jump between 1999-2000 and 2011-2012. Simply put, our sources of clean air are decreasing, while those belching out polluting fumes are on the rise.

The effects: Overpowering and increasing

How is this affecting us? Air pollution is causing damage to our natural environment i.e. trees, plants, vegetation, water bodies and animals. Along with being an environmental hazard, polluted air is the cause of many health ailments, particularly respiratory problems. The Global Burden of Disease Report (2013) shows that outdoor air pollution is the fifth largest cause of premature deaths in India. A friend who conducts theatre workshops and expeditions with school children in Delhi pointed out that on an average in a class of 60 students at least 20 have respiratory problems. In fact, as I spoke to more people, I found out that they all know somebody who is suffering from asthma and related breathing problems. This number is constantly increasing. A study by scientists from the Kolkata-based Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute (CNCI) found that twice as many of Delhi's children suffer from respiratory problems than those elsewhere.

Some families that have been residing in Delhi for a long time want to move out and cite health-related issues as a major reason. Problems of wheezing and coughing are much more common and recurrent now, especially amongst children and elderly who are more prone to air infections. Young urban couples want to leave Delhi and settle in a smaller city which provides them the quality of life they are looking for, clean air being a key component. Some of them were even willing to sacrifice their high salaries in exchange for healthier lives.

The Solution: A personal stake and small incremental efforts

Unfortunately, each one of us is knowingly contributing to air pollution. We take air and air quality for granted like we do many other aspects of our natural environment. We are all forthcoming in identifying the problem and its effects, but there is no acknowledgement of our personal contribution to it. There's a complete absence of a proactive stance in working towards addressing it. We are all seeking greener pastures elsewhere; we do not take responsibility of where we are.

We believe air quality and connected issues are concerns of scientists, environmentalists and the onus to deal with the issue lies with the government. The government should limit the number of vehicle licences it provides, reduce the subsidy on diesel, restrict the days that you can drive your car if there are too many high pollution days, strengthen the public transport system, and monitor the quality of fuel we use and so on. Agreed, policy decisions, political will and government action are all vital pieces of the puzzle. We know how important the introduction of CNG in public transport in Delhi (2002) was to addressing the high level of air pollutants at the beginning of the new millennium. But as clichéd as it sounds, that is one side of the coin. Public concern and action is equally if not more important.

"Our approach to development is far from sustainable, and with every problem we solve we unleash a new set of problems."

We are all in a hurry-- for convenience, for development -- and this impatience is the fuel running our policy making environment. Our policymakers launch short-term populist measures for development without adequate foresight. This costs us. We have adopted a curative approach to life, our lifestyle practices reflect that, we work on something after it has affected us knowing all along that sooner or later it is going to get us. We need to re-examine this and adopt a preventive approach in our lives and in our policy making. A combination of short-term responses and a long-term action plan are needed.

Our approach to development is far from sustainable, and with every problem we solve we unleash a new set of problems. It is only going to get worse from here. It is about time we devise our own solutions, however small in scale. Perhaps we could keep one day in a week to use public transport and gradually increase it to two, be more alert to getting our pollution checks on time, resist buying diesel vehicles, think twice before buying multiple vehicles, reduce smoking, do a car pool and so on. Nothing innovative about these options, but have we exhausted this available list? Not yet.

A friend of my father, who has spent his life in Delhi, pointed out that he loves watching stars and has grown up observing them, but now Delhi's sky rarely twinkle. This took me back to my first night in this city, about 12 years ago when I moved here. I clearly remember looking at the sky and wondering where the stars were. In that one moment this city did not seem very comforting. Is this the kind of environment we are building and leaving behind? I leave you with that thought.

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