When Kids Get Smokers' Diseases, Where Tourist Hot-Spots Have Dirty Air

In a fuddy-duddy conference room in the capital recently, an unassuming gentleman, a doctor who'd been with the government, did some plain speaking that should send shivers down the spines of parents. Children are getting smokers' diseases, like COPD or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, because of air pollution. He's been at this for a couple of decades, before many of us even realized how bad air pollution is really. Now India is fast getting the tag of the most polluted country in the world, specially after the recent WHO report listed 14 Indian cities in the world's worst 15.

Governments have been known to sit up and listen when Dr Manas Ranjan Ray says something, although taking action on it is another matter. He's behind the landmark study which showed that over 43% of the kids in Delhi suffered lung impairment, that's 2-3 times more than less polluted areas. What happens is that extremely tiny toxic particles (specially those PM 2.5 and smaller pollutants) enter the lungs; some settle there, and some spread out, causing havoc with respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Delhi's children had more restrictive and obstructive lung function deficiencies than another group of children under study from Uttarakhand and West Bengal.

But this report is over a decade old. Dr Ray can't understand why the government has not commissioned another study - a clinical one, not a survey. As he points out, each of the 6,000+ adults and 11,000+ children they sampled were non-smokers. The government-backed report and other reports mention how chronic pollution is linked in children, specially boys, to ADHD, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and cancer, strokes and heart attacks.

So if pollution has been proven as a chronic problem in much of India, if levels are spiking, if it's leading to deaths and disease, if both old and new studies show this, why has the government proposed a national clean air policy which, though fundamentally can be a cracking global trend-setter, is actually a cop-out? This scoop shows that far from cutting existing pollution sources, in fact breaking its own promises, the government is allowing it to grow. This paints a dismal picture of the government making the right noises against air pollution, but actually doing the exact opposite.

A mother and frequent tweeter on the state of air in Ghaziabad, officially a Chronically Polluted Area, perhaps nailed the problem in one tweet: for many air pollution is a literally a matter of life and death, but the government doesn't get that urgency.
Speaking of health emergency, in Britain, where pollution levels are lower than India's, MPs have bitten the bullet and have called air pollution a "national health emergency". And that's because of 40,000 early deaths blamed on this; in India, the number of deaths according to recent reports is over a million people. India's pollution by several indicators (see here, here, here and here) is worse than China's.

Given the state of the air it's quite a feat for both the UN and India to host World Environment Day in India this year. The theme isn't on air pollution but on "beat plastic pollution" which is of course welcome. Several places in India, like Himachal Pradesh, have had a head-start in this. It's an issue in which India may achieve pole position globally, something along the lines of the solar coalition perhaps. Maybe it's a more attainable goal and cleaning up the air which is why plastic pollution trumped air pollution.

It may be wishful thinking but we may be soon at an inflection point, when voters will make air pollution an election issue. The Tuticorin tragedy, in which 13 people protesting an industrial plant were shot dead, is likely to be a valuable lesson. Another may well be if incomes are affected, for example, most directly in tourism. After all some of the top global destinations in India made it to WHO's infamous top 14, including Agra, Varanasi, Delhi and even Srinagar as high as #10.

(Chetan Bhattacharji is Managing Editor at NDTV)

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