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Can we breathe freely anymore?

By The Assam Tribune
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• Alankar Kaushik

The National Health Profile, 2018, released recently by the Central Bureau of Health Intelligence (CBHI) reported that Assam alone had 20,667 Acute Respiratory Infections (ARI) cases and 200 deaths in 2016. This figure increased to 22,834 ARI cases with 225 deaths in 2017. Assam is said to be the most polluted north-eastern State in the country.

India played a prominent role in the formulation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda 2030 and much of the country’s National Development Agenda is mirrored in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At this juncture, when IQAir, a Swiss-based organization, recently ranked the city of Guwahati at the position of 40 in the list of most polluted cities of the world, a serious question arises for the people of Guwahati: “Are we going to suffer like New Delhi tomorrow?” Along with the city of Guwahati, there are more than 30 important urban centres of India, which are also listed in the category of most polluted cities of the world in 2020. With rampant construction going on in various sites, large number of vehicles plying on the road because of unreliable public transport, and various other factors such as pollution from small scale industries including brick kilns, resuspended dust on the roads due to vehicle movement and open waste burning, the city itself is not convenient for this generation to breathe freely. The air quality in the city of Guwahati has gone down to ‘very poor’ category as per the AQI index. AQI stands for Air Quality Index, which indicates the quality of air that we breathe. When the air quality index displays in the range of 300 to 400, it means you are breathing very poor quality air in your day-to-day life. For instance, on March 28 last, the AQI of Guwahati was indexed as 354. An AQI range of 0 to 50 up to 100 can be categorized as good and satisfactory.

There are reports generated by UNICEF that all children are vulnerable to air pollution and the youngest children are at high risk. According to a UNICEF report of 2017 on air pollution, 17 million babies (children under the age of one) live in some of the most severely affected regions of the world, where outdoor air pollution is at least six times higher than international limits. The majority of these babies, approximately 12 millions, lives in South Asia. The South Asian region is the most polluted region of the world with Bangladesh, India and Pakistan sharing 42 of the 50 most polluted cities worldwide.

Generally the immune system in the young children is still developing, and their lungs are still in a growing stage. With every breath, children take in more air per unit of body weight than adults. By extension, when air is toxic, they take in more toxic air per unit of body weight than adults. Moreover, the impacts have ripple effects into other critical aspects of children’s lives. Hence, collectively we have to decide, are we allowing our children to breathe polluted air, get sick and thereby limiting their learning and development potential or are we going to work in partnership with different stakeholders as a community for peace and prosperity of our planet?

Air pollution consists of chemicals or particles in the air that can harm the health of humans, animals and plants. Pollution enters the Earth’s atmosphere in many different ways. Most air pollution is from anthropogenic sources, which means it is caused by human factors. Along with these existing issues, climate change also contributes to the growing menace of air pollution to an extent. Climate change might also affect human health by making our air less healthy to breathe.

The Goal No. 3 of Sustainable Development Goals mentions about ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages and the Goal No. 11 ensures making cities and human settlement inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable by 2030. The blueprint for achieving a better future for the people and planet will have an adverse effect if we don’t commit ourselves to bringing a balance to this rising trend of air pollution.

Currently in India, air pollution is the second largest risk factor contributing to the country’s disease burden. A State of Global Health Report published in 2018 by the Health Effects Institute based in the United States projects a rise in annual deaths in India due to air pollution from 1.1 million in 2015 to 1.7 million in 2030. On the other hand, the National Health Profile, 2018, released recently by the Central Bureau of Health Intelligence (CBHI) reported that Assam alone had 20,667 Acute Respiratory Infections (ARI) cases and 200 deaths in 2016. This figure increased to 22,834 ARI cases with 225 deaths in 2017. Assam is said to be the most polluted north-eastern State in the country.

Air pollution is one of the most serious environmental risks. Till the moment we understand that health is also an economic issue and air pollution can affect human health, agriculture and lead to a range of other impacts, we are not going for trade-offs between different policy objectives. Therefore, to bring this issue to the popular discourse, the role of the media is utmost important.

One of the most recent policies launched to tackle air pollution is the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) launched in early 2019. The Centre has launched the programme to reduce particulate matter (PM) pollution by 20-30% in at least 102 cities by 2024. The city specific action plans have been prepared which, inter-alia, include measures for strengthening the monitoring network, reducing vehicular/industrial emissions, increasing public awareness, etc. The programme was launched by the Ministry of Environment with the intention to cut the concentration of coarse (particulate matter of diameter 10 micrometre or less, or PM10) and fine particles (particulate matter of diameter 2.5 micrometre or less, or PM 2.5) by at least 20% in the next five years with 2017 as the base year for comparison. This five-year action plan intends to create a pan-India air quality-monitoring network and generate citizen awareness. Acknowledging the fact that air pollution is an issue majorly confined to cities in Indo-Gangetic plains, covering approximately 45-50 cities spreading across the States of Assam, Bihar, Haryana, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, the total number of expected real time monitoring stations would be approximately 100 in number with average of 2-3 stations in each city to be decided on the basis of population, industrial activities, etc.

In Assam, Guwahati as a city will have the maximum number of six real-time monitoring stations operating followed by the other 12 towns. With the growing medium and small towns falling in the perplexed statistics of a worsening index of air pollution, what is required now is a multilevel approach to the problem of sustainability primarily at three levels of the system, viz., Global (climate, energy, resources, ecosystem), Social (politics, economy, industry, technology) and Human (society, lifestyle, values, health). All these three system levels are crucial to the co-existence of human beings and the environment, and it is our view that the current crisis of sustainability can be analysed in terms of the breakdown of the system and the linkages among them.

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