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Delhi smog: Get the message across to schoolchildren about saving earth, environment

Government curricula and textbooks must lay greater emphasis on climate change education, education for sustainable development and other context- specific aspects of safety and security

education Updated: Nov 16, 2017 11:28 IST
Delhi smog,Delhi Schools,Environmental eduation
The dark pall of smog that hangs over northwest India provides a great teachable moment to ensure stronger attention to climate change education and education for sustainable development more broadly in school curricula.(Mohd Zakir/HT PHOTO)

Ensuring quality education is impossible without ensuring that the environment is safe and secure for children to learn. The prevailing health emergency due to the smog in Delhi is a wake up call for all stakeholders in the education system in India. They should know it’s high time they dealt with the consequences and causes of climate change.

Delhi has been declared the world’s most polluted city. Approximately 100 major cities in India are going through a health emergency due to heavy smog. There is ample evidence that air pollution affects a child’s cognitive development, which in turn can affect school attendance and performance. The impact is, however, sometimes even more immediate. At least eight students and one teacher died in Punjab last week due to low visibility caused by the smog. It is also not a unique occurrence; Delhi faced a similar situation last year. Admittedly, the government has taken steps to deal with the immediate emergency. Like last year, elementary schools were closed this year too.

However, is this sufficient?

Preparedness remains limited. While many state governments have developed guidelines for schools on safety, none explicitly address pollution based emergencies and did till this year did not include provision of masks or air purifiers in classrooms. It is time policymakers, government, academia, civil society organisations and other stakeholders develop a collective understanding on making education safe and secure for all children, including freeing them from the negative impact of pollution.

As countries meet for the UN Climate Summit in Bonn, the dark pall of smog that hangs over northwest India provides a great teachable moment to ensure stronger attention to climate change education and education for sustainable development more broadly in school curricula. Schools must plan a more active role in building awareness about sustainable development and climate change to ensure that at least the next generation grows up better aware of the consequences of their actions on their own well-being and on the health of their fellow citizens and planet earth. Ensuring that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles is a core component of India’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) agenda.

Immediate steps schools need to take

Some concrete additional immediate steps must be taken by schools and education departments in the affected states to deal with the immediate effects of the prevailing health emergency.

1.Ensure all children in school have face masks until smog goes out completely

2.Inform parents about steps needed at home in such circumstances

3.Use any existing school forums to organise discussions with students on climate change, its reasons and preventive measures.

Long-term measures

Some more long-term steps that need to be taken by education departments in Delhi, UP, Punjab and Haryana as the states most affected, and others experiencing significant pollution problems, are:

Minimise children’s exposure. Governments must undertake pollution audits of all schools, Anganwadi Centres and preschools and ensure that they are not located near factories, sites of heavily polluting traffic or other sources of pollution. Child-sensitive urban planning is critical to ensure that polluting sources are kept away from places where children spend time, such as schools.

•Take steps to reduce air pollution. While addressing the root causes of pollution are outside the purview of the education ministry, schools may also be encouraged to plant trees or other plants which act as air purifiers in schools and classrooms. This may entail tweaks to the building codes in urban areas where efforts are frequently made to maximise square footage available for classrooms alone. Simultaneously, larger urban schools can do their own bit to reducing pollution by using energy-efficient appliances, reducing wastage of electricity, reducing and discouraging the use of individual cars. Parents can be requested to turn off engines at school gates.

•Promote awareness building and climate change education. Government curricula and textbooks must lay greater emphasis on climate change education, education for sustainable development and other context- specific aspects of safety and security. Libraries must be equipped with informative and age appropriate books and reference material on climate change and children encouraged to read them. Teacher education and training of education planners on climate change education for sustainable development and steps to raise awareness about climate change will also be important.

•Improve overall health to reduce complications. The pre-existing health of a child greatly affects the extent of pollution’s impact. This is critical given the prevailing low levels of child health; India’s under-five mortality (50) is substantially worse than that of its poorer neighbours, such as Nepal (36), Bangladesh (38) and Bhutan (33). Providing all children with access to quality and affordable medical care, exclusive breastfeeding, better nutrition and maternal health care, helps to builds their resilience to negative effects of air pollution. A stronger link with school health services is key in this regard.

While combating climate change and ensuring sustainable development would entail changes in individual life choices, it is the state’s responsibility to create an enabling environment for this change in the knowledge, attitudes and behaviours of its citizens.

The authors work with CARE India. Taneja is director, education and Rajput is technical specialist, education.

First Published: Nov 16, 2017 11:25 IST