We Can No Longer Afford To Not Mend Our Ways

Air pollution cannot be seen in isolation as ‘everything hangs together'.

Recently the whole world realised its own vulnerability in the wake of the COVID-19 onslaught. So many deaths occurred all across the world. But what today remains bigger issues are air pollution and climate change. Deaths due to air pollution have been far more than the deaths due to COVID, so says Dr. Arvind a leading doctor from Medanta, New Delhi, who specialises in respiratory medicine and lung surgery. This menace has spared no one, neither the old nor the young, not even sparing those in the neo-natal stage.

The causes aggravating this threat are not far to seek. They lie in unsustainable lifestyles and the human zeal to constantly achieve higher economic growth, without considering its larger consequences. This has led to uncontrolled industrial pollution, vehicular emission, fossil fuel based power generators, stubble burning, forest fires, defective urban architecture, inadequate solid waste management, shrinking green cover and many such factors which were recently discussed in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, the town finding its place in top 10 polluted cities of the country. Taking various leads during a conclave attended by experts from various fields, it not only deliberated upon these vital issues but set an actionable agenda that would bring down the pollution levels in the State. This agenda included micro level baby steps leading to strategic interventions such as a ‘disaster response’ plan.

An interesting poll was conducted during the session. The participants were asked to participate in an online survey and were given ten action points to curate an action roadmap. The top priorities put forth by 128 participants were:

1. Transport Systems: Ensure vehicular emission standards and cleaner fuels.

2. Industry: Enforce industrial emission standards and clean technologies.

3. Awareness and capacity building to tackle air pollution.

4. Shift away from fossil fuels used for power generation.

5. Promote renewable energy and provide support to startups.

6. Agriculture and Forestry: Reduce stubble burning and prevent forest fires.

The problem is serious and worsening. One could survive for a weeks or probably a few days without other essentials but barely for a few minutes without air. Judged by new WHO standards, we have 10 times more pollutants than recommended in India. This majorly depends on our lifestyle. Indians already have 30% weaker lungs due to the polluted air they breathe. The issue of clean air, therefore takes precedence over even ‘Roti’, ‘Kapda’ and ‘Makan’. Whatever policies or laws the government may legislated, and it has already done so with respect to vehicles, construction, industrial emissions, green cover in the country, agro waste management and so on; it is amply clear that unless civic society makes it a movement, nothing much can be achieved. After all it is the power of civic society that has made smoking unacceptable in our drawing rooms or public places. The grim and astute narratives via advertisement have finally impacted our perceptions but it has become possible only due to the initiative coming from our society. Simply by way of an wake up call, 51% pollution is emitted by our industries, 27% by vehicles, 17% by crop burning and 5% by fireworks. We can no longer afford to ignore this stark threat looming over us.

Air pollution cannot be seen in isolation as ‘everything hangs together’. It effects the other core elements such as water, soil, temperature and the atmosphere as a whole. The ever rising temperature sets off a vicious cycle necessitating the use of air conditioning systems which in turn is leading to further increase in temperatures and pollution. The whole ecosystem is then getting affected in terms of the loss of microorganisms, unpredictable weather, rising sea levels, attrition in water resources, melting glaciers and so on. Hence taking a holistic view, the whole world now needs new and effective solutions. With rising population pressures, this imperative is increasing. The constant pressure for growth is compelling the corporate sector to be expedient and use half-baked technologies which are financially lucrative providing partial short term solutions but actually end up accentuating environmental problems. One way is a detailed study of the experience based sagacity of our ancestors from a few centuries back who maintained a balanced approach in consonance with nature. Another would be to do an audit of our modern lifestyle and discover ways and means to reduce our carbon footprints. The latter entails first a survey and data collection, real time monitoring of the pollution levels and finding the cause and effect of the current technologies in vogue in order to properly zero in upon its very source. There is no doubt that only a mitigation at source in a decentralised manner holds the key to sustainability.

The surveys clearly indicates that life expectancy has actually reduced from 6-12 years at various places depending upon the intensity of pollution. The death toll too has gone up by 30% , solely due to air pollution, due to which seven million people in this world die every year. Similarly, public health has deteriorated, particularly amongst old people and children. Ailments such as obesity, asthma, heart problems and other related diseases have drastically gone up amongst them. Lack of proper oxygen has adverse multiple effects on the supporting ecosystem. A weak link in the whole chain makes it vulnerable to accidental failures, anytime, anywhere.

These conclusions have been derived by the well documented presentations made by experts of Environment, Forest and Climate change department of Govt of UP, IIT Kanpur, Medanta, New Delhi, KGMU Lucknow, and organisations such as CAF & AQIL. The action points that emerged mainly included – greening the habitat through plantations, developing green corners, resort to terrace gardening; encouraging walking & cycling, encouraging use of public transport, segregating waste at source and converting it to manure. Further actionable points included reducing and recycling plastic waste, encouraging use of natural fibers and earthen materials for making sustainable products; sensitising children on various issues including shunning use of firecrackers. It also focused on asserting as well as pursuing the government to implement laws that support environmental health, adopting available technology to minimise carbon footprint, saving electricity, adopting solar options, using electric vehicles and evolving innovative ways in collaboration with all stakeholders locally as well as globally.

Lesser developed countries have incongruence in their developmental cycle. But one needs to have positive mindset and take action in a balanced and graduated manner. In order to unlearn and also relearn these harsh facts that are glaring at us, decision making for survival is critical and we need to take a fresh look at some data. What we thought would happen in 50 years, has actually happened in 10 years only as the temperature of the planet has increased by 1.5C. Now if we don’t put a check on it, it will rise further  by 2.0 to 4.0 C in barely 15 months, which is an alarming scenario. This is the harsh reality of our impending future. It is time now to realise that this would have a spiralling effect.

We as a country of 1.4 billion are reportedly already below the WHO standards. UP alone has 13 times higher pollution as per the neo norms. A citizen loses 10-12 years of life expectancy in Lucknow, which is barely a digit less than Delhi. The annual particulate pollution rate is 22%. Even this needs to be reduced drastically. NCAP is aiming to reduce it in aggregate by 30% before the year 2025. We may interestingly take a look into the opportunity cost of Air Pollution at individual level focusing on supply of clean air or oxygen, taking a cue from cost of potable water now in terms of global business of bottled water that is estimated to be 349 billion US dollars. In case there arises the similar situation, given 80 years life span in a family of four, as per a worst scenario broad calculation, the cost of buying oxygen for life could go beyond 335 crore INR at prevalent prices. It may sound incredible, but it is critical to draw our attention to the emerging situation. Years back we could never assume that we would be spending money to buy drinking water to this extent.

We need to follow a carbon resilient and low carbon lifestyle and maintain a sustainable health system. The biggest war is now ahead of us. Let us fight it well now that we understand that we have to fight it ourselves. We don’t need to look for any further proof. When COVID-19 pushed humans to stay within closed houses during lockdown, nature recuperated and began to emerge as per its original glorious design. It is now the time to pronounce it loud and clear, ‘Facts 2 Act’. SHAPE UP: Solution for Health, Air pollution & Environment is the need of the hour; its now or never!!

About the author - 

Dr A.P. Maheshwari 


Internal Security,Policing & Crisis Management Expert; Speaker & Author. 

Tags assigned to this article:
air pollution COVID-19


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