Breathing Uneasy

At school reunions comparisons are inevitable. One comparison that came up at a recent one was life in India vs. life in the US. Our “quality of life” in India being better than that of our friends in the US was argued loudly by one friend. It seems that one of the best things going for us is the fact that we (middle and upper class Indians) do not necessarily need to cook or clean for ourselves. The reason behind this has nothing to do with any quality of life indicator but the fact that India is a developing economy where untrained and unskilled labour is available relatively cheap. Living in our gated communities we forget that at the fringe of this protected world lives the rest of India without access to even safe drinking water.

But, let us not concern ourselves with the poor and the hungry for the moment.  Let us, instead, focus only on our growth oriented cities.  Let us look at Delhi, the capital of the country, the city of millions and millionaires.  If India is shining, then Delhi is shining the brightest.  Delhi has more millionaires than any other city in India.  Even if we have been able to better our standards of living by virtue of steadily climbing  income levels, there is a lot that we still do not have.  We keep our blinders on and tend to equate standards of living with the number of people we can employ to ‘serve’ us at home and work. We may find it demeaning work but, believe it or not, that is not what makes any difference to livability. While standards of living are a direct result of our incomes – what we can afford, quality of life indicators are an entirely different measure.  Quality of life may be measured in terms of access to some basic necessities, such as safe drinking water, and sanitation, and then such intangibles as equality and safety.

How do we rate the livability of our capital city?

Let us take the most basic of all needs – water to drink.  Just last week the HT reported that 50% of water supplied in North Delhi was unfit for drinking.  Even if the survey was politically motivated, the findings cannot be ignored.  The point is that if we overlook what ails us, we will fail to address what needs immediate attention.  And, we really do need to take a hard look at out attitudes to our surroundings, our environment.

Since 2000, Yale University and Columbia University have collaborated with the World Economic Forum to come up with the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) that ranks 132 countries on 22 indicators with the broad objective of tracking performance and progress on environmental health and ecosystem vitality.  We are currently ranked at an abysmal 125th place (behind Bangladesh at 115, Pakistan at 120, and Nepal at an enviable 38th place).

While we may have ‘improved’ in our EPI rankings, the trend for the past three years is downwards for Delhi’s air quality.  Clean air and safe drinking water are not available to all of  us, not even those who live in the capital city! Delhi has the worst quality of air of all cities in both PM10 (particulate matter under 10 micons in size) and ozone levels. At this rate Delhi will be gasping for breath by 2021.

PM10, because of their small size, have the ability to reach deep down our respiratory tract.  Health concerns from PM10 are serious enough that the EPA is reconsidering its present standards for it – 50 µg/m3 (annual mean), and daily concentration limits of 150 µg/m3.   Half of the cities monitored under National Air Quality Monitoring Programme (NAMP)  have PM10 at critical levels (more than 1.5 times the standard limit). NCT Delhi has high levels of PM10, 1-1.5 times the standard limit.

The major source of PM10 is vehicular traffic.  In Delhi, cars constitute the major share of this motorised traffic on the roads.  If we continue to refuse to take the bus (pun intended), we will choke in the exhaust of our cars.  Exposure to PM10 has been directly linked with effects on breathing and respiratory systems, damage to lung tissue, cancer, and premature death.   Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable.  Urban air pollution is likely to become the biggest environmental cause of premature death, ahead of even unsafe water!  Much of the advantages of a better standard of living will be offset by increased spending on healthcare. As of now, India does not monitor VOCs (volatile organic compounds such as benzene, toluene, and xylene) in air quality, which are so toxic that even traces of these are considered toxic by WHO.  Vehicle exhaust is again to blame for this pollutant in the air we breath.

It is time to wake up and smell the coffee; take the bus, Dilliwallas!

Right to clean air: Managing Air Quality.

One Response to “Breathing Uneasy”
  1. nippo says:

    Yes, we need to ‘take the bus’….. BUT when the planning of the city encourages everyone to buy a car then how could we?…… Anyone with a stable income can buy a car, EMIs are as low as Rs. 2000/- (which is more than what many slum-dwellers in Delhi earns!)…. all the roads are so very wide to accommodate cars….flyovers sprout at a very fast pace…..govt’ keep talking about signal free road and increasing the speeds…. there are no foot paths to walk…the bus is always packed and stops in the middle of the road for the commuters to run and catch it….. the bus don’t come on time…….. ooh! enough of cribbing!

    Actually we are way to far away from the western concept of trying to get the car-walas to bus…. as of now 64% of commuters (Ref CSE) use bus…. so the first step should be to make life of these people easier and stopping them from moving to a car…….. There is no Car Vs Bus competition…. its all about how to make the existing bus users comfortable….. the next thing can be to bring the car-walas to bus……

    Only 14% of this city use car,….. a very low number, but which is increasing at a very very fast pace….. this is the time to act and reduce this percentage…

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