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Choke on it

Air quality continues to deteriorate, but there is no pressure on the government to take action

A report from The Lancet, published on Sunday, estimated that two lives in India are lost every minute due to ambient air pollution. The first response from the Environment Minister, Anil Madhav Dave, was that the government would come out with its own study to understand the effects of air pollution on human health. “A proud country,” Mr. Dave said, “always trusts its own data and takes action on that.”

It is difficult to discern which is worse: the fact that the authorities are not interested in taking any immediate measures to tackle the problem of the killer air, as described in the report, or that they have not even initiated a study to understand its impact. The Minister, as well as anyone who has visited Delhi in the last couple of months, would be able to vouch for the fact that the evidence of the impact of the smoggy air on the health of the city’s population has, to use a terrible cliché, been literally blowing in the wind.

Valuing cars over lungs
Acute respiratory infections (ARIs), which have a direct link to pollution, have been rising significantly. The National Health Profile 2015 reported a 30% increase in ARIs since 2010. According to private doctors and paediatricians, the rise in the number of respiratory ailments, skin and eye infections — all of which can directly be linked to air pollution — in the last three months is well over 50%. The elderly and children are especially vulnerable to this. Yet, much like the government, people too have decided to err on the side of denial.

In January 2016, when the Delhi government decided to run the odd-even experiment and restrict the number of cars in the city, it was met with much outrage by a citizenry that seemed to value its automobiles more than its lungs. In October and November 2016, even when a dense brown air was blowing from the burning fields of Punjab, a vast majority of the city’s population had no qualms about bursting firecrackers and adding more toxins to the air. Ever since, though the average PM10 (particulate matter less than 10 micrometers in diameter) has stood consistently at over 300 (it peaked to 1,680 in October), there are hardly any masks visible in the streets of the city. Even in upscale apartment complexes in Gurugram and Greater Noida, where presumably the educated and the erudite population of the region reside, most activities carry on as normal. Senior citizens practise yoga in the manicured lawns at 6 a.m. when the PM10 levels are usually above 450; on weekends children are out early in the morning being coached in football or karate.

This baffling lack of personal awareness about the real impact of air pollution is part of the reason why there is no pressure on the government to take action. Mr. Dave said bringing down pollution levels is not “rocket science”. Yet, he wasn’t willing to lay down any concrete steps to enable it. The Centre, he said, could only work like a “philosopher and guide”. If this was a WhatsApp message, here’s where you would be affixing an eye-roll emoji.


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