This Article is From Oct 06, 2017

PM Modi, This Diwali, Why Not Appeal for Swachh Air?

First, some encouraging news. This message from my kid's school - "Dear Parents, as per the request from quite a few parents, we have decided not to burn the Ravana effigy. We will send you a video as to how we will destroy him. Happy Dussehra!"

As a parent whose younger daughter, just three years old, has been diagnosed with childhood asthma - the doc says she may grow out of it - this message is a good sign, that parents are not only more aware but more assertive. Ask around and you'll find there are many children and even adults whose vulnerability and suffering increases around fireworks. A recent government notice warns of terrible health effects like cancer to even "possible radioactive fallout".

Around Diwali, this is likely to get worse specially in cities and towns. Indian scientists, who are doing cutting-edge work in this field from Pune to NASA, have documented this. In the graphic below, Urban Emissions, an air pollution science and advocacy site, has shown not just how Diwali fireworks lead to "severe" pollution i.e which "affects healthy people and seriously impacts those with existing diseases" but also the level of debate and awareness around it! Sadly, in Delhi, a ban on firecrackers was lifted recently.
air pollution graphic 650

One hopes the Prime Minister changes his Diwali message from last year. Study after study shows that children are most susceptible to airborne pollutants - PM 2.5 i.e. particulate matter 30x less than a hair's breadth.

A year ago, Mr Modi asked parents and guardians to keep an eye on kids when they burst fire-crackers so that the kids don't hurt themselves. Valid, but it isn't enough. It ignores the potential damage that the huge spike in ambient air pollution does to their health, not only to the kids lighting crackers, but to all those in the vicinity.

Just weeks after his speech, soon after last Diwali, Delhi suffered its highest level of pollution in years; it came on the back of the farm fires across three states north of the Capital.

So why not, in his next Mann Ki Baat speech before Diwali, support the campaign #SayNoToFireCrackers? appeal to people to light more diyas, especially those made by traditional craftsmen and women? The Prime Minister is acutely aware of what's buzzing on social media, and he may already have picked up messages, discussions, appeals by ordinary citizens against fire-crackers.

Science apart, look at it this way. The current Swachh Bharat programme aims to largely clean garbage and and end open defecation. But why leave swachh air out of it? It's arguably the only type of pollution that affects almost everyone. Unlike contaminated water or garbage, it's tougher to get away from air pollution, specially in India.
firecrackers 650

Last month, the Supreme Court, lifted the ban on sale of firecrackers in Delhi NCR

There is the argument that Diwali fire-crackers are just a small cause of pollution, that it's traditional and so on. Which is correct, but it is still poison, poison that can cause respiratory and cardio-vascular diseases and can even be carcinogenic.

SwachhAir doesn't end with Diwali fire-crackers. But it's a good time to pledge against other evils - CO2 and vehicular emissions. Two recent reports show India and the government's performance is worrying. This one shows up the government's doublespeak, how it's flouting its own rules by not reducing emissions coal power plants by this year-end. And this reports that China is way ahead of India by actually showing a reduction in Green House Gas emissions. India, on the other hand, is one of the few large countries where Green House Gases grew substantially, by 4.7% in 2016, whereas it fell for many top polluters including the U.S. And the reason for India spiking is the higher consumption of coal.

Understandably, India does need to rely on coal-generated electricity for several years more specially to help millions rise above the poverty line. It has historically not been responsible for much of the global warming. Yet it's playing a leading role in adopting clean energy. So why the centre is unable to stick to its own rules to clean up thermal power plants is inexplicable.

The other political failure is how governments - BJP, Congress, AAP - seem unable to help farmers prevent burning crop stubble. This has started, which means millions of people from Amritsar to Varanasi should brace for another dirty start to winter. 

Post-script: The kids destroyed Ravana by knocking the effigy over, thereby "conquering evil". No smoke, no fire, plenty to celebrate. 

(Chetan Bhattacharji is Managing Editor at NDTV)

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