Silent killer

Air pollution affects one and all in every Indian city or urban area. By concerted action, worst sufferers of the past such as the Americas and Europe have effected a turn-around in situations that developed in the years after Industrialization. The crisis touched a peak in the 1980s in those countries and then started a climb-down following strong governmental steps. India and China — new centres of economic activity and vehicle-induced pollution — are today faced with a serious air pollution crisis, the worst being witnessed in capital New Delhi.

Half-hearted governmental efforts in the past rarely helped. The monster that silently kills multitudes is becoming more aggressive. As Delhi contemplates to put in place the Odd Even scheme once again to reduce traffic on its chaotic road networks, fear is the silent killer in the name of atmospheric pollution is here to stay; and every citizen is forewarned of its consequences.

All Indian cities are in one way or the other victims of air pollution, either due to industrial activities or due to an overload of vehicles plying on their narrow roads. The capital has over a crore of registered vehicles, of which 66 lakh are two-wheelers. Scooters and bikes hold the dubious distinction of being the ‘worst’ city polluters in view of their poor emission standards. Mumbai, by contrast, has less than 3 million vehicles, and Chennai and Bangalore in the range of 4 million and Kolkata 2 million. Both Delhi and Mumbai have about the same range of population at 19 million.

The disparity in the number of vehicles in Mumbai is directly linked to the massive network of public transport systems. Delhi’s vaunted Metro Rail system introduced before the turn of the century carries a daily passenger load of less than 3 million passengers, against a load of over 7 million by Mumbai local trains — to which was progressively added a Metro system in recent years. Mumbai, the nation’s main industrial and commercial hub for decades, has a pollution problem like other cities but this has not reached a critical stage as is the case with Delhi. The reason is also that residential areas are located far and wide to a distance of 40 km, the local trains helping people commute to the places of work and back home daily. Not only that, Mumbai being on the ocean front has the advantage of sea breeze carrying the suspended particulate matters deeper inland. Delhi or Bangalore, unfortunately, do not posses this blessing from nature.

The hue and cry being raised about the hazardous pollution levels in Delhi — that scares away health conscious foreigners from the city and creates worries for the local population — has largely to do with governmental failure to put in place mechanisms and infrastructure to catch up with the times and cope with special situations like what exists there today. Air pollution levels in the Capital city now get tagged as ‘hazardous’.

Governments were caught napping as burgeoning cities are left to their fate. An Arvind Kejriwal coming up with an Odd Even scheme to reduce the density of traffic by itself will make little sense. It adds to the problems of the citizenry engaged in the daily grind. Long-term solutions are the need of the hour, and further strengthening of the public transportation system is the way forward to reduce pollution in the capital.

Notably, the industrialised, cash-rich western world coped with the air pollution peril remarkably well as they did in the case of other humanitarian, health and social issues. Emission levels that peaked in the 1980s have been effectively brought under control in America and western Europe with sustained remedial actions on a long-term basis. Governments in India either blink at critical situations or come up with short-term measures. One small example would suffice to show how the blame on the government is not unjustified. It is true that we Indians blame the government for everything.

It is also true that citizens have the greatest responsibility towards their own health. But in this case, India, like China, could very easily compel the automobile manufacturers operating in this country to phase out fossil fuel vehicles. Instead of a Volvo, Mercedes or Toyota pushing their outdated combustion engine vehicles on the Indian consumer, the Indian government could simply phase out old technology vehicles and introduce Tesla type electric vehicles which are already common in the rest of the world. The sad part is, the Indian federal government can easily be bribed by the automobile lobby to carry on their profiteering activities with outdated technology in this country.

The will to act is missing in the Indian context; and this is most pronounced in the Delhi air pollution scenario. People are made to die a slow death. As per records, over four million people die of air pollution a year across the globe, of which more than half are in India and China. This figure might as well be based on fixed parameters like the number of people dying due to lung infection etc. The actual figure in India could be very high, as people are made victims over a period of time without clear diagnosis being at hand for every death. The high density of population and failures on the part of government on related fronts make the scenario scary. Long-term planning cannot wait even a while.

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