WHO report on pollution: Politicos playing petty politics while people choke, citizens need to demand more

The World Health Organisation’s latest data on air pollution proves there are more boiling frogs in India than anywhere else. People in 14 Indian cities are breathing the world’s most toxic air. Yet, like the metaphorical frogs who boil to death slowly without being aware of the danger, they are completely oblivious to the tragic fate that awaits them.

The WHO data is alarming. India has 14 cities out of the 15 most polluted cities in the world with PM 2.5 concentrates toxins that settle deep inside the respiratory tract. Kanpur, the report says, is the world’s most polluted city followed by Faridabad, Varanasi and Gaya. Other Indian cities with very high levels of PM 2.5 pollutants are Delhi, Patna, Agra, Muzaffarpur, Srinagar, Gurgaon, Jaipur, Patiala and Jodhpur.

 WHO report on pollution: Politicos playing petty politics while people choke, citizens need to demand more

File image of smog in Delhi. PTI

Two things are evident from the list. One, except for Srinagar and Patiala, all these toxic cities are in India’s Hindi heartland. Two, every year the number of Indian cities in this list keeps growing. Both these facts need to be analysed in detail.

India’s Hindi heartland is the epicentre of its politics. It is, apart from Mumbai, also the centre of attention of the media and public policy. Yet, this very geographical entity continues to remain highly toxic. And, surprisingly, there is absolutely no debate over the public health crisis among either the mainstream political parties, the government or the media. It seems, either people are not aware of the socio-economic hazards of pollution or they have resigned to the fate of inhaling toxins.

Over the past two years, there were elections in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. But, no political party talked about pollution during the campaign. Not even a single politician acknowledged the crisis. And this was primarily because the boiling frogs, India’s masses who are being cooked by the toxic fumes in the air, do not talk about pollution at all. So blasé are they about their own health that Indians do not expect politicians and the government to talk about it all. So, while we have politicians paying lip-service to environmental issues, glitzy campaigns on ‘Swachcha Bharat’ and cleaning rivers, treating them like ‘Maiyya’, not much happens on the ground and the air quality keeps worsening.

This is reflected by the WHO data. In 2010, Delhi was the world’s most polluted city and Agra was the only other Indian city in the top 10. But this, as the Times of India reports, started changing 2012 onward when 14 out of top 20 most polluted were in India. In 2013, 2014 and 2015 too, four to seven Indian cities were in top 20. Now, 14 out of 15 most polluted are in India.

Compare this with China where the government has come up with long-term plans, strict enforcement and awareness campaigns to bring pollution levels down drastically. In 2013, China’s 14 cities were among the top 20 polluted cities. This year only four Chinese cities —Baoding, Hengshui, Xingtai and Anyang — figure among the top 20.

Since India has been regularly figuring in the top 15 cities with toxic air, alarm bells should have started ringing long back. Pollution should have been declared a national emergency. The state and Centre governments should have by now declared a war on pollutants. But, unfortunately, most of the directives on tackling pollution have come from the courts while the executive continues to remain in denial.

Only myopic policy planners can ignore the hazards of air pollution. Only they can’t see that once a city becomes unlivable, there would be catastrophic consequences that would cripple the economy, public health services and the existing infrastructure.

Consider, for example, Delhi: the world’s fourth most polluted city. Because of India’s inability to bring down pollution levels, it has already been declared unlivable by many health experts. Several embassies have issued advisories to their people and staff to avoid Delhi during winters when a killer smog chokes the city for weeks.

The socio-economic burden of pollution could be immense. Why would investors look at a city that has turned into a gas chamber? Why would foreigners want to come here even for business or pleasure? Why would foreign governments expect their staff to breathe the city’s toxic air? So, Delhi’s air is a PR disaster for India, a deterrent for socio-economic growth.

For Indians, the cost is bigger. Pollution is the leading cause of non-communicable diseases like cardiovascular problems, stroke, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. Its effect on the respiratory health of children has been well-documented. Apart from that, pollution is making many Indian clusters unsafe for living. This would gradually force people to relocate at huge costs, turning polluted metros into ghost towns and putting immense pressure on adjoining areas.

India needs to deal with the crisis with a long-term plan that is implemented seriously. Governments in Delhi and state capitals need to bury their differences — especially in Delhi where people are suffering because of petty politics—to ensure pollution levels are brought down through policy interventions, strict enforcement of environmental laws and awareness campaigns.

But, all this can happen only if the ‘boiling frogs’ realize that the heat of pollution around them is rising. It is just a matter of time—not decades but years—before toxic air around us cripples us economically, socially and physically. India’s ailing masses need to realise the lurking danger and speak up. Only then will Indian politicians act.

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Updated Date: May 02, 2018 18:44:26 IST