New Delhi, India – It was the winter of 2017 when Utsav, then only two years old, was first diagnosed with asthma, a respiratory disease that affects the lungs.
Since then, he has been forced to cover his nose or wear a mask to protect himself from the dust and smog, as India’s capital continues to battle a pollution crisis. On the days that he feels worse, Utsav has to use the nebuliser with the help of his parents.
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“Whenever the air quality depletes, Utsav’s condition worsens. He is quite young but he starts asking for medicines and nebuliser whenever he starts feeling uneasy,” said his mother Priya as they waited to see the doctor in a state-run hospital specialising in chest ailments in North Delhi.
“We cannot even afford good quality masks,” said the 33-year-old mother, an accountant in a local consultancy firm. Her husband Kamal, also 33, is a data entry operator with a food company.
During the winter months of November and December, when air quality is at its worst in New Delhi, the average poisonous atmospheric particulate matter that has a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometer (or PM2.5), often hits the emergency figure of nearly 440, more than 12 times the US government’s recommended limit. The city’s average PM2.5 level is around 114.
Children worst affected
The spike in New Delhi’s air pollution during the end of the year is attributed not only to vehicular emission or industrial dust but also to the burning of straw by farmers in the neighbouring states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh after the harvest season.
The Hindu festival of Diwali, which falls around November, also contributes significantly to the city’s pollution as millions of people set off firecrackers filled with harmful chemicals, forcing India’s Supreme Court to regulate the sale of firecrackers.
Delhi-based pulmonologist Dr AK Singh told Al Jazeera that there is a direct correlation between toxic air and ailments including respiratory issues, high blood pressure, heart diseases and even cancer. India has one of the highest child mortality rates in the world due to toxic air as well as polluted water.
“Children are the worst affected because they respire more air as they are involved in physical activities. The coming generation is going to be seriously affected since their lung development is not
happening in a healthy manner,” he said.
Earlier this year, Sandhya Kamal, a mother of two, finally realised she would not be able to live in a polluted New Delhi any more and decided to move to Chandigarh, 250km north of India’s capital.
“Delhi’s pollution had gotten on our nerves. Living in the city became a recurring nightmare,” her husband Saras Kamal, who quit his job as a designer with a leading English newspaper, told Al Jazeera from Chandigarh.
The Kamals are among a growing community of “pollution refugees”, as The Washington Post put it last year, referring to a growing trend among a section of New Delhi residents seeking a better life in less polluted parts of India.
India, the world’s fastest growing economy, is currently holding its seven-phase general elections. Over 900 million eligible voters are expected to cast their votes in the elections, which end on May 19.
While a number of national issues, including issues of national security and economy, have been in the headlines throughout the ongoing elections, there is barely any discussion over the country’s pollution crisis in the campaigns.
India’s toxic air claimed 1.24 million lives in 2017 – 12.5 percent of total deaths recorded that year in the country, according to a study published in Lancet Planetary Health. The study said more Indians died due to pollution than cancer, tuberculosis, AIDS and diabetes put together.
The 2018 Global Environmental Performance Index placed India at 177 out of 180 countries, down more than 20 spots from 155 in 2014.
In March this year, another study showed that India is home to 15 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities. All four satellite cities surrounding New Delhi – Gurugram, Ghaziabad, Faridabad and Noida – figured in the top six while the national capital itself, home to nearly 30 million people, was placed at 11 out of 20.
Yet, Indian politicians seeking a place in India’s 543-member lower house of parliament hardly ever talk about the deadly pollution around them in their campaign speeches.
“Pollution is not an issue for political parties because these leaders are not affected by it. The prime minister’s residence is spread across hectares and is full of greenery. What problem is he facing due to air pollution?” asked Priya, who goes by her first name.
No consensus on climate issues
Environment activists and scholars say they have seen a recent change in the attitude of the political parties or the government with regards to pollution.
In January, India launched a National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) aimed at cutting pollution in India’s 102 worst affected cities by 20 to 30 percent by the year 2024.
But the NCAP has been criticised by environmentalists, who say it lacks focus and ambition.
According to an article in Down to Earth, a New Delhi-based environment magazine, 2019 is the first time climate change has made it to poll manifestos of both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress.
The BJP has vowed to focus on the 102 most polluted cities and to establish India’s renewable energy capacity of 175 gigawatts by 2022. Its rival Congress has recognised air pollution as a national public health emergency and made a promise to strengthen the NCAP.
India needs to
1. Repair & Restore our water bodies.
2. Regenerate & Afforest wasteland & degraded land.
We will employ lakhs of rural youth in our gram sabhas to improve the environment.
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) March 30, 2019
Polash Mukherjee, who works with Centre for Science and Environment (CSE, which publishes Down to Earth), says the bottleneck is that the political parties, governments and bureaucrats often don’t agree on the nature of the crisis.
“The biggest challenge is gaining a political consensus on recognising the problem and that is something that has eluded our country so far,” he told Al Jazeera.
While Mukherjee credits the incumbent BJP government for making sanitation and cleanliness electoral agenda, he thinks it’s not enough.
“Of course, implementation is still a long way to go. There are so many areas where measures have been taken only on paper,” he said, citing solid waste management as an example.
“Eighty percent of India’s local municipal bodies are not doing it.”
The World Bank calculates that India’s losses from pollution-related healthcare expenditure stands at $221bn every year, that is 8.5 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP). This is more than the government spends on healthcare every year.
Dr Singh points out that ordinary citizens are the worst victims of the pollution caused by unregulated urbanisation and increasing industrialisation.
“The kind of burden that is going to fall on us due to diseases related to air pollution is going to be enormous in terms of cost,” he said.
“A country with a majority of unhealthy citizens will not be able to flourish.”