Delhi is dangerously polluted? Everybody knows, nobody cares

Most of us Indians think we are top dogs and cool cats. But we are instead like an experimental frog in water, on gradual boil to death.
According to a 19th century experiment, when a frog is put in boiling water, it quickly jumps out to save its life. But when it is put in cold water that is heated gradually, it boils to death.

The toxic air around us is unbreathable; the polluted underground water is undrinkable; potable water is disappearing fast; food items are laced with fertilizers; chicken and other bird meat has high levels of antibiotics; vegetables have E-coli and other bacteria; milk has synthetic material and oxytocin; and the noise around us is of such high-decibel that it is freaking us out, frying our brain.

The environment around us is closing in on us like slow-boiling water. But we are not even thinking of jumping out of the cauldron. Like the frog, most of us are not aware of the danger. And those who know, simply do not care.

In our blind apathy and ignorance, we are not just on slow poison; we are also concocting deadlier and higher doses of toxins for the future generations, including the children, on whose ‘better’ future we, ironically, spend so much time, money and effort.
It is all going horribly wrong.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

For the past two days, the Indian Express has been writing about the alarming level of pollutants in the Delhi air, telling us about the impending death by breath. It says Delhi is the world’s most-polluted city, the respirable particulate matter in the air is 17 times the permissible level and the number of patients with asthma, wheezing and other chronic ailments has increased three-fold in seven years. Medical experts the newspaper spoke to have just one advice for people with chronic respiratory ailments: just leave Delhi.

Another report in the Times of India reveals around 40 percent of samples of chicken in Delhi and NCR had high levels of antibiotic content; their consumption is making people resistant to drugs. India consumes around 2100 tonne of chicken every year and its consumption is expected to touch 4000 tonne in 2030, the highest in the world.

Monitoring of water in most Indian rivers has shown high levels of pollution. A report in 2008, found the bio oxygen demand (BOD) in Yamuna canal (247), river Yamuna at the Delhi (70) and river Betwa (58). A water sample with a 5 day BOD greater than 20 mg O/L indicates ecologically-unsafe polluted water.

Even the Ganga has turned into a gutter. A few years ago, Sankatmochan Foundation, a Varanasi-based NGO, assessed the quality of water around the popular ghats. Some of the samples had a fecal coliform count of 62,000 to 2.7 million per 100 ml. And a biochemical oxygen demand of 20-50mg per litre. The permissible level of fecal count for bathing is just 500 per ml. And the oxygen demand (higher the pollution greater is the amount of oxygen required to clean it) should be less than 3 mg per litre.

In 1951, the use of fertilizers in agriculture was less than a metric tonne. It is now well over 25 metric tonne. For years environmentalists and experts have been warning against the high levels of chemicals like nitrogen in food and underground water. Nitrogen fertilizer use and production account for six per cent of our total greenhouse emissions. But their usage keeps increasing, taking the toxic levels higher each year.

Several studies have found dangerous chemicals in water bodies of Punjab, where pesticide and fertilizer use are rampant, that cause various childhood illnesses and a range of cancers. (Areas on the Rajasthan-Punjab border, where water from the Indira Gandhi Canal has brought vast stretches of land under agriculture, have a train that carries so many cancer patients that it has come to be known as ‘Cancer Train.’)

As the Indian Express report reveals, things could have been controlled. In 1998, after a Supreme Court directive for use of CNG in public transport, air pollution came down every year. In 1995, suspended particulate matter in Delhi had hit a high of 409 µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre). In 2000, two years after the CNG verdict, scientists measured the tinier and virtually invisible RSPM for the first time and found the level at 191 µg/m3 — it fell to 161 µg/m3 in 2007. Since then, as the number of diesel vehicles in the city increased and the government turned a blind eye to the rising menace, the levels began to rise again.

Similarly, till 1977, the use of fertilizers in agriculture was limited. But in the absence of government controls and because of a liberal subsidy regime, it went up exponentially. An apt indicator is the government’s fertilizer subsidy burden, which is in excess of Rs 120000 crore compared to just 60 crore in 1976-77.

The solutions are obvious: less cars on roads, increased use of public transport; judicious use of water, less fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture; strict laws against use of chemicals in the food industry; gradual phasing out of subsidies on things that harm the environment; swacch Bharat on roads, clean drains, sewers and rivers.

The government can do a lot, but not everything. Buying a second car, use of public transport, observing ‘no-car’ days, for instance, are all individual decisions. Unless the government brings in tough laws to discourage their use—higher taxes, more fuel costs and steep parking charges—not much would change. Long-term solutions are possible only if the government and the people cooperate. But, unfortunately, the frogs do not even know they are boiling.