Open Letter to the Environment Minister from a mother
Dear Mr Prakash Javadekar,
On the second of May, the front page of a newspaper carried your quote crediting “vested interests” for raising the issue of worsening air quality in Delhi, calling them “forces that do not want India to progress.”
As a parent of an asthmatic child who is barely four, I am that vested interest. So are scores of young and old people at the receiving end of rising particulate emissions in the country.
We are bigger than a single NGO, media house or an embassy. We are ordinary citizens that you have chosen to blame for supporting the growing clamour for solutions to address the capital’s worsening air quality.
If research by the Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute (CNCI) is to be believed, then over 40% Delhi’s school-going children have reduced lung capacity, with indicators being 3 to 4 times worse than what is considered normal.
This statistic makes me shudder.
That little person in my life who is pumped with steroids everyday, has learnt the difference between Asthalin and Budecort before learning his As and Bs. For him a common cold can trigger severe respiratory distress and he has already been wheeled into the ICU four times.
Now try squaring CNCI’s findings, pertinent to 9-17 year olds in the city, with my younger, more susceptible child.
I am aware that asthma is only a symptom, triggered by a combination of allergens unique to its patients; dust mites, pollen, or certain foods, all of which inflame and constrict a person’s bronchial airways.
But while air quality may not be the number one trigger, it can exacerbate symptoms and be a pervasive deterrent in the full recovery of a person’s lung function. Given the very high Particulate Matter (PM) values one sees in Delhi however, it is entirely possible that air quality will soon be the primary trigger for its residents. After all, PM 2.5 is also a proven carcinogen.
To a parent, nothing can be scarier. As a researcher therefore, I’d like to set the record straight.
Mr Javadekar, you have raised three crucial points:
First, you have linked this growing clamour for action as a hindrance to progress.
Second, you have asked why the issue wasn’t picked up ten years ago.
Third, you have questioned why only one embassy’s data is being shared.
A 2013 study by the World Bank calculates that India loses as much as 1.7% of its GDP to outdoor air pollution. Increased mortality and morbidity are quantified by lost workdays due to reduced activities and increased hospital admissions. The key to India’s progress, Mr Javadekar, is not just the number of cars it churns out, or the buildings it erects, but also a healthy workforce that drives up the nation’s productivity.
So why haven’t we raised our voices in the last 10 years?
In 2005, Delhi was still enjoying the gains it had scored by converting its buses and autos to CNG. It is in 2007 that the Centre for Science and Environment first flagged that Delhi had begun to lose its CNG gains because of the rising number of diesel cars.
While there was some mainstream news coverage, it was not followed up.
So who started the proverbial fire? Rankings and indices have a way of capturing public imagination, especially if they are cross-country comparisons. While some would argue that air quality comparisons between India and China are flawed, such contrasts – in pollution values as well as respective policy approaches – have helped put the spotlight on the fact that our air quality is in fact staggeringly bad.
Which brings me to your third concern on the disproportionate focus on single embassy data.
Mr Javadekar, I don’t need to tell you that the number of monitoring stations in Delhi alone is woefully low. They belong to three different sets of agencies and the numbers for each rarely correspond. The embassy in question, buoyed by success of its independent monitoring and dissemination efforts in China is simply replicating the effort in India, though it is by no means comprehensive.
Moreover, your agencies control the government data and in what form it is shared. Recent reports indicate a shift from sharing real-time values to a 24-hour average. That is unacceptable. People should have the option of viewing real-time data and have access to raw values they can build on and disseminate.
Mr Minister, you say this government has begun taking some concrete steps, and I welcome it.
But as a ‘vested interest’ I will raise my voice, support independent research efforts, campaigns and petitions, so the effort is fast-forwarded, and a generation of young people like my son does not suffer because of the suspicion and policy paralysis of a few.
In addition to being a mother, Anu Jogesh is a journalist and policy-wonk. Her views are personal.