'There are no non-smokers in India,' says doctor who installed artificial lungs in Delhi to create awareness on air pollution

Delhi's air quality worsened in the last few weeks due to stubble burning in the neighbouring states, and just when it was beginning to show signs of revival, uncontrolled bursting of firecrackers during Diwali sent the air quality back to hazardous levels with certain areas like India Gate reporting AQI as high as 999 a day after Diwali.

To show, just hw how alarming the air pollution situation is, Dr Arvind Kumar, chairman of the Centre for Chest Surgery at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital who also heads the Lung Care Foundation installed a pair of giant lungs outside the hospital.

Dr Kumar recreated human lungs with the help of HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters, which are used inside operation theatres to trap dust. And to imitate the working of a human lung, the lungs were fitted with fans. Six days later, the lungs turned completely dark.

"We had thought it would take at least one month for the lungs to get dark but the lungs changed colour in just 24 hours. On day 6, the lungs had become completely dark," says Dr Kumar.

Effect of air pollution on lungs in six days. Rashme Sehgal

Effect of air pollution on lungs in six days. Rashme Sehgal

Dr Kumar blames the worsening air quality of the national capital to the city's failure to tackle air pollution at multiple levels. He claims that throughout the year, Delhi is exposed to PM 2.5 levels that are above 200 which is the equivalent of smoking over ten cigarettes a day, even for newborn children. What this means, says the doctor is: "There are no non-smokers in India. We have all become a nation of smokers."

"This is a failure on the part of individuals, officials, organisations to take cognisance of the fact that breathing is killing. The bottom line is that breathing is killing," he says.

Dr Kumar says ever since he started heading the Lung Care Foundation, he has been appealing to politicians, religious organisations, state governments and central governments to take action, but in vain. "We are demanding immediate and serious steps to control pollution and not the adoption of cosmetic measures like the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP)," he says.

Dr Kumar claims that the pollution level reported on the the first day after Diwali this year was worse than the pollution reported on the first day Post Diwali in 2017. What's worse is that this has happened despite a clear diktat by the Supreme Court restricting the use of firecrackers.

This takes one to the question, which several people have been asking since the Supreme Court gave its verdict on firecrackers. Was the SC order implementable at all? Dr Kumar refuses to get into the argument, however, he mentions that there has been a lot of misunderstanding about green crackers, and that the court was not made aware of everything about them.

"The MoEF gave an affidavit to the Supreme Court that NEERI and CSIR are making green crackers that have a lesser percentage of particulate matter. We opposed this affidavit because the SC was not made aware of the fact that green crackers still had 30-40 percent PM levels. The courts should also have been made aware of the fact that green crackers were not available in the market. But the same was misrepresented by the media. What the Supreme Court did was put a ban on the use of crackers because if you see the ethos of the order, it had ordered a complete ban on all crackers given that no green crackers were available," he says.

Dr Kumar rues that the SC order received no backing from politicians, religious leaders or other newsmakers. He claims to have tried to engage several influential religious leaders including Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Sri Jaggi Vasudev as well as head of the Radha Swami Satsang in Beas, but met with little success.

"If political parties and religious leaders had appealed to the people, people might have had desisted from burning firecrackers. Also, the Delhi police could have been more stringent. Wherever the SHO’s were proactive, there were practically no burning of crackers in that area. But above all, it was a callous failure on the part of the people who chose to have fun at the serious cost of their children," he says.

Dr Kumar says that young children are most affected by air pollution as it can leave them with underdeveloped lungs, underdeveloped brains and cancer. In fact, a recent WHO report showed that 620,000 kids under five had died in India in 2016 because of air pollution.

He says that India could learn a lot from China to tackle air pollution. "China has in a short span put in place policies to combat pollution and then ensured the ruthless implementation of these policies. Their cities Beijing and Shanghai had some of the worst air in the world but the situation there has improved significantly," he says.

But to make that happen, the people to acknowledge, accept and realise that air pollution is going to kill them. "In order to reverse this, we may suffer inconvenience but we have to acknowledge that clean air is my fundamental right. It is only when we have it that things will start improving," he claims.

Dr Kumar says tht plans like GRAP are emergency responses to an emergency situation, and won't help eradicate the disease. "GRAP will order stopping construction for ten days but can construction be stopped forever? Can schools be shut down forever? The permanent sources of pollution are dust and smoke. These need to be brought under control and for this, we do not need rocket science. They do however need some amount of money," he says.

But equally important is political will without which even well-thought out plans go bust. "We have 500 coal-fired thermal plants whose emission standards were set up 30 to 40 years ago. The Ministry of Environment and Forests set down standards stating that emission levels be reduced by 31 December, 2017. But the Ministry of Power went ahead and deferred the reduction of emission standards and said these would be brought down only by 31 December, 2022," he says.

Other areas where India can bring a change is moving the entire country to Euro 6 fuel emission standard and not just in Delhi. Also key to tackling air pollution is assessing environment impact of a project before it's approved. "In the US, when you start a plant, the first thing to check is to assess its environmental impact. Look at the construction going at Pragati Maidan. This is close to both the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court and just two kilometres away from the Parliament but no politician or judge has looked at how the environmental clearance was given to this construction. There is a lack of will. We choose to overlook this aspect for some other gain forgetting these gains at being obtained at the cost of our health. Pollution is a slow killer. When we wake up, it will be too late," he claims.

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Updated Date: Nov 10, 2018 17:11:24 IST

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