How India's Top Anti-Pollution Plan Is Failing Children

On the Monday after Diwali, pollution levels were in the hazardous range at Rajpath, the magnificent road that runs through the heart of Delhi. The concentration of PM 2.5 pollutants was above 300 micrograms/cubic metre.

It wasn't just Delhi, this was the state of other cities and towns as well, Gurgaon to Lucknow and more. Yet, many schools reopened after the Diwali holiday. Young children, the most vulnerable to pollution, are exposed to lethal air.

There is sufficient research that red-flags the danger of short-term exposure - from more deaths to hospitalisation. One study shows that every short-term increase by 10 micrograms/cubic metre ups daily mortality rate by over one percent. How many deaths is that? That is estimated to be hundreds and that's only for a ONE µg/m3 increase in daily PM 2.5 levels. The 'good' or safe level is 25 µg/m3; the annual average in some north Indian cities about 140-170. 300 is dangerous.

Another report shows that with every 10-point rise in PM 2.5, there's an almost 0.5% rise in hospital visits - and hospitalisation of children for pneumonia. 

A CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) report notes that air quality on Diwali in Uttar Pradesh's Lucknow was the worst in five years, with the average hitting almost 700. Even this for a "short period... could severely affect human health particularly in case of children, senior citizens and people with respiratory issues".

The District Magistrate of Ghaziabad, which is a chronically polluted area or CPA, is perhaps one of the rare officials who responded on social media to warnings of 'severe' pollution. But she limited her action to an advisory, which is not mandatory.

Delhi avoided by a whisker any steps to protect school-going children because of what is now turning out to be a flaw in GRAP or the Graded Response Action Plan announced last winter. 

For any action to shut down or even change school timings, PM 2.5 levels have to be above 300 for more than 48 hours. Delhi missed the red line by a few hours on the night of November 9. Obviously, pollution doesn't work to bureaucratic models and schools did reopen on Monday, though pollution levels were above 300 in many parts of Delhi. 

This frankly doesn't work in the interest of public health.

In France, districts are allowed to take action like blocking incoming traffic, slashing public transport ticket prices and even offering free rides if pollution spikes. Pollution emergency measures there can be set off at 80 micrograms/cubic metre of fine particulate matter, unlike in India where levels need to be much, much higher!

This year, many actually expected things to get better, but they needn't have held their breath. In many areas, the episodic farm fires and Diwali time pollution have been as bad as in previous years, if not worse. Agencies like Safar have noted silver linings like reduced dust on some days, but this only amounts to an 'unees-bees ka farak'. 

Such marginal differences of, say, fewer 'severe' days than last year, are meaningless for the health of people, especially the most vulnerable. As we see currently, a day's average for a city overshadows threats posed by hazardous peaks or hazardous areas. There needs to be a local response, like shutting schools in parts of a vast city, but not all of it. For example, Delhi on average may have an air quality index or AQI of 'very poor' at 399, but half of the city may actually have 'severe' pollution ie above 400.

Ironically this flaw is highlighted on the very site which prevented Delhi-NCR administrators take a hard decision on schools. 

The starting point of any decision to shut schools is whether Delhi-NCR pollution is above 300 micrograms/cubic metre for PM 2.5 for 48 hours. The site puts out an average. But at the bottom of the screen there's a warning that reads "averaging is not a scientifically sound approach". So why follow this system if it's going to give you a result that is misleading, that binds you from taking action?

The question all this technicality raises about GRAP is this - why is the anti-pollution system in the most polluted mega-city in the world so structured that the most vulnerable, the children, are protected only when it surpasses 'severe' levels and hits 'severe plus or emergency' range? This is over 12 times WHO's safe limit of 25 micrograms/cubic metre.

The capital at least has GRAP and EPCA (Environment Pollution Control Authority) - the Supreme Court mandated agency to take action against pollution if and when it chooses to. But that's still just for Delhi and its immediate neighbourhood. What about the millions of people living across north India, where pollution is usually the worst? There's no EPCA, perhaps even no framework under which any emergency action over air pollution can be considered, let alone taken. In fact, pollution is barely measured enough by officialdom. UP, Bihar, Punjab and Haryana together have far less ambient air monitors than Delhi, which has almost 50.

Back to Rajpath. At the other end from the National Stadium is the seat of the government. It's high time that it puts India's air pollution crisis at par with bijli-sadak-paani-nuclear power status issues.

(Chetan Bhattacharji is Managing Editor at NDTV)

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