Union Minister, Piyush Goyal, in the Interim Budget made a slew of promises and announcements for the environmental sector.
However, most environmental issues — pollution-free nation, cleaning rivers, protecting the coastline, self-sufficiency in food and good health infrastructure — found only a mention in the ‘Vision For The Next Decade’ section of his speech.
The only silver lining in the Interim Budget was an increased outlay for the National Commission for Green India from Rs 240 crore, and a thumping pat on his own back when Goyal said “India provided leadership to the global climate change effort. Our commitment to promote renewable energy is reflected in our initiative to set up the International Solar Alliance”.
None of these had any tangible targets or a perceptible action plan, especially when one talks about a young India with a population with an average age of less than 25.
Unfortunately, at Rs 100 crore, the 2019-20 allocation remained the same as last year for the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the central pollution watchdog, while the Centre decreased the allocation for pollution abatement by 50 per cent from Rs 20 crore last year to Rs 10 crore for 2019-20.
In this context, it would be apt to understand the challenges and opportunities of the air pollution crisis for a new generation born into smoking ‘cigarettes’ from their very first breath. They are being subjected to inhale polluted air, a disturbing legacy of urban growth passed on to them. Not a great life to long for.
Children constitute over one-third of the population. The way they handle toxins places them at far greater risk than the adult population and sadly, the younger they are, the greater the risk. They are also closer to the ground, so at greater risk to suspended low-hanging pollutants.
In fact, this risk begins even before birth with studies demonstrating how air pollution exposure to the mother results in numerous adverse outcomes for the unborn child, including low birth weight and in acute cases, even still-births.
While the number of years each child is losing due to air pollution is still being debated, it would be highly unlikely and unrealistic to expect that our smog-filled environs is actually extending lives.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released a report on the impact of air pollution on child health, following a global warning by UNICEF a few months earlier. In terms of health effects, a number of different conditions were highlighted besides asthma and pneumonia, but including autism, childhood cancer and obesity.
While respiratory related conditions have been fairly well researched in the Indian context, there is a paucity of evidence for other outcomes.
However, the absence of evidence does not in any way amount to the evidence of absence. As research for these conditions takes place in the Indian context, we will certainly see similar results, although the relative risk may differ.
The impact of air pollution for children goes beyond health. With mounting global evidence indicating that air pollution has deleterious effects on the brain, including cognition and learning, the impact on education in India hasn’t even been considered so far.
A US study, for example, has shown that when students taking standardised tests are separated into two groups, one where air quality is better and one where it is worse, the ones where air quality is better are significantly in an advantageous position.
Already, with the sort of air pollution levels seen in India, especially in cities like Delhi, and the other growing so-called ‘smart-cities’ marked by WHO for their pathetic pollution levels, many schools have stopped outdoor physical activity for children, a component, which is important for the growth of any child. In addition, there is always the ‘sword of Damocles’ hanging over school authorities to shut down schools.
However, in this gloom, today’s youngsters will certainly make the lotus bloom. They are now at the forefront of innovation, which was unthinkable ten years ago. Amply demonstrated by creating a sensor for traffic congestion or an app for personal monitoring of pollution, they are now becoming effective champions of change through innovation, apart from propagating the conventional ideas of using public transport or car pools, planting trees or simply by wearing a mask when they step outside in the very poor air quality.
Children can be harbingers of change, but ultimately at a societal level, adults have to take responsibility and ensure radical changes in emission reduction. After all, children are the most innocent victims of a world they did not create. Let’s give them a long life along with a world that is worth longing for.
To sum up, one does hope that the new government, after the general polls this year, does not create a situation where the environment is defeated by development.
Or else, we will have to take the words of a famous environmentalist seriously: “The cost of our society’s success is energy crises, climate change, pollution, and the destruction of our habitat. If we continue in the same direction, there will be nothing left for our children.”