It is highly surprising and irritating how some people – otherwise seemingly aware and progressive – decode the problem of pollution and offer possible solutions. To begin with, there is an air of “collective self-denial” about it from citizens who feel they cannot do anything but feel helpless, to authorities who feel they do not have the bandwidth to control it to the politicians who feel they have unfairly inherited the problem in all its gravity from their predecessors quickly shifting the blame to another party. The suggestions for prominent people about possible solutions have ranged from eating carrots, to performing yagyas, to doing pranayama, completely undermining the need for bringing hard-hitting and sweeping multi-sectoral reforms in policy, implementation, and enforcement to bring a real turnaround. It is important to debunk the myths that surround pollution with real facts; more so now, when pollution is the still the talk of the town and before everything is business as usual.
Myth 1 – Pollution is just a “start of winter” problem: It is part of our everyday lives all through the year barring a few lucky summer and monsoon days. On an average, air quality level in NCR hover between “poor” and “moderate” levels, and rarely touch “good” or “satisfactory” levels. To be sure, data from Centre for Science and Environment reveals that the total number of days in the year when Delhi met the Air Quality Index standard in 2015 were 39, in 2016 were 55 days, in 2017 were 77 days, in 2018 were 73 days and in 2019 (up to August) were 60 days. This means in a five-year average, the AQI standard is not met, 84 per cent of the year.
Myth 2 – To tackle pollution, we need to “simply curb stubble burning”: We need to fight all factors that cause pollution including vehicular emissions, waste burning, construction and road dust, coal-based industries and industries using dirty fuels, brick kilns etc. The baseline pollution level always remains high because of all these reasons. The situation flares up around November due to additional factors including stubble burning, Diwali crackers burning and weather factors such as lowering of temperature and wind speeds.
Myth 3 – It’s an “NCR problem” or at best a north India problem: Recently, the Central Pollution Control Board added 20 more Indian cities to the list of 102 Indian cities that do not meet the National Ambient Air Quality. These included eight from Andhra Pradesh and six from West Bengal. Smaller cities such as Chittoor, Asansole, Rajahmundry, Eluru, Trichy, Sangareddy are the new joinees to the list. With 7 of the 10 and 22 of the 30 top polluted cities in the world, India is easily the most pollution country in the world. Pollution is a national problem.
Myth 4 – Pollution only affects “vulnerable” sections: It affects one and all, not just those with respiratory disorders, and young children and the elderly. It is hazardous even for perfectly healthy people. More and more diseases are now attributed to pollution including heart diseases, diabetes, depression and cancers. An increasing number of non-smokers are dying of lung cancers. In fact, more people are dying of pollution than due to wars, natural disasters and hunger all put together. Pollution is in fact the biggest “silent” killer of our times. Health apart, it has more damage in the form of reduction of productivity, slowing down investment, flight of talent and leads to an overall negative image.
Myth 5 – It is “difficult” to control pollution – Pollution is a controllable malady. Many cities in the world have reversed pollution. We know the causes; all we need to prioritise an action plan that has immediate as well as long-term milestones backed with smart implementation, effective monitoring and tight enforcement. Say, for vehicular emissions, stringent pollution checks and move to cleaner fuels and better vehicular standards as well as increase in the usage of public transport is needed. For controlling waste burning and construction dust, enforcement of rules must be backed by an active “waste segregation at source” programme. The emergency action plan provides short term relief only. A comprehensive action plan that works round the year, year after year must kick into action.
Myth 6 – I have “no role” in creating or fighting pollution – No, we all are responsible for it, in some way or the other, in a big way or a small way. We can certainly make changes at our individual level (composting our kitchen waste, using public transport, using solar energy, reporting offences such as waste burning and illegal dumping of construction waste), at a community level and at our city level. What we could do unitedly as citizens is to create heightened awareness that leads to a civil outcry forcing the central and the state governments, authorities and regulators to act. Let us not forget the right to clean air is a fundamental right granted to us by our constitution. Politicians need to know that they could lose elections for not addressing this issue.
Fellow citizens, the battle for clean air is a long and complex. It will need political will at the highest level to make this our national priority. Let us unshackle ourselves from the haze that has kept us in the self-denial mode and come together to fight this menace with a clear vision and determination. Are we all ready?