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Unicef’s ‘clear the air’ report: Government watches as we breathe toxins

analysis Updated: Oct 31, 2016 15:58 IST
Viju Cherian
Viju Cherian
Hindustan Times
Toxic air

A layer of smog envelops the city skyline, New Delhi, India, October 28(AP)

Air pollution levels are alarmingly high but why is the government acting as only a monitoring agency and doing precious little to clean the air?

According to the Unicef, almost 90% of children around the world live in places where the air pollution levels are much higher than the WHO-set safe standards and about 600,000 children under age five die every year because of air-pollution-related complications. On Monday the UN’s children’s agency released the report ‘Clear the Air for Children’ to urge the governments of about 200 countries, which will be meeting in Morocco from November 7 to 18 to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels.

Read | 620 million children in India, South Asia breathing toxic air: Unicef

Pollution is a cause for concern, and air pollution, in particular, is a killer. But that should not come as a surprise if you’re in Delhi, which has the dubious distinction of being among the top 10 most polluted cities in the world. Regrettably, many cities and towns in India are high up on the pollution chart. (Check the air quality in your city )

According to the WHO, air pollution kills more than 3 million every year. Of these, about 1 million are in China, closely followed by India.

Read | Mumbai breathes ‘poor’ air this Diwali

But these are startling details that our governments, both at the Centre and states seem oblivious to. Of course the government releases air quality index (AQI) figures but stops short of doing anything beyond that. Why doesn’t it issue health alerts when the AQI numbers reach hazardous levels? An alert and guidelines to be followed would go a long way in reducing, albeit temporarily, the adverse impact on one’s health.

Read | Delhi pollution level alarming post Diwali, people complain of ‘zero visibility’

Much of the government’s focus is on vehicular pollution — this means that other sources of air pollution, some of which are equally if not more deadly, are not given enough attention.

Take the case of industrial pollution — there are comprehensive laws but seldom are they rigorously implemented.

Stubble burning is another. Even after the National Green Tribunal warned against this practise, the Haryana Environment Department has recorded more than 1,150 cases of stubble burning in the state.

Read | ‘Yay, we’re beating Beijing’: Delhi residents tweet their air pollution woes

Indoor pollution, which the Unicef report highlights, is an issue that’s not much talked about.

A lack of political will and the flawed argument that environmental protection is anti-development are among the culprits. Numerous reports and data, like the one released by Unicef, clearly establish that haphazard development and disregard to the environment comes at a heavy human cost. The road to development cannot be paved on the backs of an unhealthy, sick population.

“Pollutants don’t only harm children’s developing lungs, they can actually cross the blood-brain barrier and permanently damage their developing brains, and, thus, their futures. No society can afford to ignore air pollution,” says Anthony Lake, Unicef executive director, while releasing the report.

Read | Delhi smothered by smog: Where’s the city government?

Issuing health advisories and stopping short of doing anything meaningful to reduce causes of air pollution reflects the lack of importance the government has given to a threat that is slowly, but definitely, killing people.