Lack of political will and intent and not making an explicit linkage with health means that Indian children die preventable deaths

Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE

India had not even made an explicit linkage of air pollution with health, which was why mortality due to it was not recognised as such and consequently went unnoticed, experts told Down To Earth October 4, 2022. Some of the most detrimental impact of this was borne by the country’s children, they added.

The experts’ comments came even as Delhi yet again turned into a gas chamber after Diwali. The political leadership, instead of thinking of solutions, has as usual engaged in a blame game.

That air pollution kills Indians, both children and adults, is not new. More than 116,000 infants in India died within a month of birth in 2019 due to air pollution — outdoor and indoor — according to the State of Global Air 2020 report released October 21, 2020.

Another study published in Environmental Research in February 2021 found that air pollution and higher particulate matter 2.5 concentrations in ambient air originating from fossil fuel combustion caused 2.5 million premature deaths in India in 2018.

“Children are especially vulnerable since they are growing up and are in their formative stage,” Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director, Clean Air & Sustainable Mobility, Centre for Science and Environment, told DTE.  

“We have to understand that it really begins from the foetal stage. Studies say that because of the exposure of the pregnant mother to very high pollution levels, it actually affects the placenta and the foetus.

“Therefore, the World Health Organization also has an estimate that in India, new born babies fall sick and die before 21 days of their birth,” Roychowdhury said.

This is validated by what the State of Global Air 2020 had said in this regard. “It is thought that air pollution may affect a pregnant woman, her developing foetus, or both through pathways similar to those of tobacco smoking.

“One plausible mechanism is that pollution particles or their components may move across the membranes of the lungs and be carried to other parts of the body, affecting placental function and the foetus,” the report had said.

As children grow up in polluted environments, their developing organs and bodies are affected. Studies show that every third child in Delhi has impaired lungs. Other studies show that children growing up in polluted environments have smaller lungs. That makes one vulnerable to metabolic diseases.

Roychowdhury had added that there were studies which showed that children who lived in close proximity to highways plied by heavy diesel trucks, also grew with decreased brain size.

India’s children and women also suffer from indoor air pollution as mother and children are exposed to smoke from chulhas due to energy poverty.

Most of these children are from lower socio-economic classes. This also brings the environmental justice and equity issue, she added.

Why no action?

Despite all this, India has not recognised in policy and law that air pollution is a killer.  

Lara Jesani, an environmental lawyer based in Mumbai, told DTE that the reason was more political than legal.

“There is no political will and intent to accept that there have been deaths caused due to air pollution. You just need to remember the government response last year or the year before on The Lancet report that had said that 12.5 per cent of deaths in India occurred due to air pollution. The report was rejected by the Indian government,” she noted.

Roychowdury pointed to the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, which is the main legislative framework for air pollution and control.

“It does not even have the word ‘health’. So it is like air quality monitoring and management for the sake of it without making an explicit linkage with health,” she said.

The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare was not even part of the air pollution narrative and conversation, Roychowdhury pointed out. But she did mention a report by the ministry from 2015, which detailed the link between air pollution and health.

“It gave good recommendations. But there is no mandate per se. Even though there are a lot of opportunities in the health governance system to be able to leverage those because we know that the health ministry has a lot of disease surveillance systems (like TB). Those systems can certainly be leveraged,” said Roychowdhury.

Jesani added that instead of introspecting and trying to understand that air pollution had become a major crisis and was leading to a severe health impact especially among children, the poor and the elderly, the current government had been only ramped up developmental works.

“We have to see to it that a lot more explicit policies are shaped since air pollution deaths are preventable,” Roychowdhury said.

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