Killing us softly – with this smog

India
Environment
Health

A cricket match can be stopped for many reasons – rain, a poor pitch, bad weather, difficult light conditions. Delhi brought in a new dimension yesterday. Air pollution was so bad many people, including the visiting Sri Lankan players, could hardly breathe.

Play was interrupted after lunch, when Sri Lankan pace bowler, Lahiru Gamage, doubled up in discomfort. Several players vomited and the match was stopped three times in the hope the pollution would clear up somewhat.

Pollution was responsible for ‘three times as many deaths as AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined’

It’s probably the first time in the history of the game that air pollution has halted a Test match. It’s just not cricket!

The situation in India, however, is not a game, but a matter of life and death. With – literally – millions dying, why did it take a cricket match to put the air pollution crisis centre stage?

India was found to be the world leader for pollution deaths by the Lancet Commission on pollution and health. Apparently, India recorded a shocking 2.51 million pollution-related deaths in 2015, the year looked at by the study. That is, more Indians were killed by toxic air than any other cause.

Pollution was responsible for ‘three times as many deaths as AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined,’ according to the study in the world-leading medical journal. Worldwide, it is responsible for more deaths than ‘high-sodium [diets] (4.1 million), obesity (4.0 million), alcohol (2.3 million), road accidents (1.4 million), or child and maternal malnutrition (1.4 million)’.

How does air pollution kill so many? It has been found to worsen a huge range of conditions: it exacerbates asthma and restricts lung growth in children, as well as causing lung cancer; increases the risk of heart attacks and has even been linked to dementia.

India accounted for roughly 28 per cent of an estimated nine million pollution-linked deaths worldwide in 2015. China, also a large, rapidly growing economy, comes second to India in the most badly polluted countries race, with another 1.8 million pollution-related deaths.

air pollution India: a mixture of fog and air pollution over India in 2004. Photo: Jeff Schmaltz / NASA
A mixture of fog and air pollution over India in 2004. Photo: Jeff Schmaltz / NASA

But China, unlike India, is taking pollution seriously, with the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang this year promising ‘to make skies blue again’, and declaring a war on pollution nationwide.

They’ve made tackling pollution a priority. So they’ve cut down on coal-powered electricity and steel production, and urged the country’s people to stop using coal-fuelled stoves in their kitchens. Unlike most others, the Chinese government has put its money where its mouth is: they are the world’s biggest investors in solar and wind power.

They’ve prioritized fighting global warming (many sources of air pollution are also major contributors to greenhouse gases) over growth. And they’ve hit their own heavy industries by cancelling or closing 103 coal-fired plants. Its subsidies for electric cars are second only to Norway’s, and worth up to $15,000 per vehicle.

They’re building novel ‘vertical forests’, with trees and greenery to absorb carbon dioxide and cleanse the air. These towers will house 1,100 trees from over two-dozen local species, and 2,500 creeper plants and shrubs. Between them, they will inhale 25 tons of toxic carbon dioxide annually – and exhale around 60 kg of oxygen daily.

China’s taken it seriously enough to risk their own heavy industries by cancelling or closing 103 coal-fired plants

Mexico City, too, has won awards for putting its fight against air pollution on a war footing. Banning 40 per cent of cars, it managed to slash its air pollution levels by half.

For Delhi journalist Shweta Punj it took a trip to Singapore to realize how suffocating this smog has become for those living here. Struck by seeing children playing in the parks in Singapore, it crystallized for her: the air is so toxic in Delhi that parents no longer allow their children to play outdoors.

It’s a sad comment on our national capital – and it is a similar story in other Indian cities, such as Bangalore. The quality of life for urban Indians has reached a new low. They sit in gridlocked traffic jams, spend unnecessary hours getting to work and back. And allergies, throat infections and illness are the new normal for those living in most Indian cities.

We need to take the act of cleaning up our cities seriously. Others have shown it can be done. Its time for India to follow suit – and if our political leaders won’t take action on their own, it will be up to us citizens to make sure they do.

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