Every year on Dec 2nd, India celebrates National Pollution Control Day to honor the memory of those who lost their lives in the horrific Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984. For those who lived through those days, perhaps the image that remains seared in their minds is that of the glassy eyed infant being buried, eyes wide open, a reminder of how tragedy takes away a life yet to be lived.
On the night of Dec 2nd, 1984, the accidental discharge of the toxic chemical gas Methyl Isocynate and other toxic gases from the Union Carbide Chemical Plant in the city exposed over 500,000 people to these dangerous gases with zero protection. Of these over 2000 died immediately on exposure. 25,000 people in all died from exposure to these toxic chemicals, making the Bhopal Gas Tragedy the biggest industrial pollution disaster in history.
In previous years, pollution levels across India have escalated alarmingly. The Indo Gangetic basin region has become unliveable with AQI levels crossing the dangerous level on a regular basis. In the NCR, schools have been declared shut due to pollution twice already this year, and the real chill of winter has yet to set in. The situation in the rest of India is not much better. On National Pollution Control Day, we asked experts researching and working in this space to tell us their opinion on where we currently are in our battle against pollution and where we need to go as a people and as a nation.
Ronak Sutaria, Founder and CEO, Respirer Living Sciences
“In terms of raising awareness, I do think the scientific research studies, citizen led studies and mainstream & social media coverage to the severely poor air quality levels has played a significant contribution in raising awareness to the issue.
Comparative air quality data from different neighborhoods and different time-periods can enable more timely decision-making by people who are vulnerable to asthma and other breathing related difficulties. – Ronak Sutaria
Leading-edge science and technology initiatives of the central government, such as the “Real-time Air Quality Monitoring” administered by IUSSTF has enabled indigenous technology to be built which allows affordable and fine-grained (or hyper-local) air quality monitoring to be done for a tiny fraction of the cost involved in doing with international equipment without compromising on the accuracy of the data. Results from such government-sponsored research studies have allowed India to build air quality equipment which is a tenth of the cost of what it was paying for similar technology earlier. This air quality monitoring technology has also enabled and opened-up several other applications for monitoring, awareness and intervention related initiatives.
Citizen led studies have also been very useful in helping make the air pollution problem more understandable from a daily actionable perspective. A recent citizen science study done in Mumbai had found that Mumbai local train commuters were breathing 35 percent less pollution than BEST bus commuters and the A/c car commuters were breathing 17 percent less pollution than train commuters. Comparative air quality data from different neighborhoods and different time-periods can enable more timely decision-making by people who are vulnerable to asthma and other breathing related difficulties.
On the regulatory side of air pollution, more affordable and real time air pollution monitoring is enabling tighter emissions control norms for small and medium size polluting factories. Global precedents have been established where citizen-led initiatives have tracked down pollution levels of large companies like steel or copper manufacturing facilities and made them accountable. Pollution issues like construction dust and vehicular emissions require tighter regulatory control combined with the adoption of the latest technologies for ensuring compliance.
The mainstream media, armed with data from geographically distributed cities across the entire Northern India, has provided extensive coverage to this issue on prime-time TV and front-page print news. This has also brought focus and spotlight to this issue at the highest Judiciary level in the Supreme Court and in the Lok Sabha & Rajya Sabha. Bringing the issue front and centre is necessary and at the same time recognising that the mitigation and improvements are going to be periodic and iterative. There are lessons to be learned from the failure of the SC empowered civil society led pollution control authority. In the absence of an energized, motivated and knowledgeably equipped team, the civil society can fail as spectacularly as our government authorities.”
Bharati Chaturvedi, Founder and Director, Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group
“There has been a lot of awareness created in part from state agencies and in part non-state actors including experiences of people themselves, victims of pollution, people whose children are born with extraordinary challenges due to pollution, growing up with hideous pollution-induced diseases, with extraordinary challenges brought about through direct exposure through pollution in the air, in the water, in your body. Overall, I think we haven’t yet as a society managed to convert that knowledge into action, both mass action that will have people pressurise state agencies to push for change, for enforcements of pollution norms as well as to push manufacturers and production units to be mindful and to be scared to pollute. So we haven’t really crossed the threshold, we’re still in a very safe space as far as awareness goes and that is the great challenge we have.
Every year on National Pollution Day, we need to look at the top five most polluted places, it would be great if the Central Pollution Board also engaged. And also, look at what what we want to achieve in the next five years or even the next year to reduce the pollution, to remove it, to remediate it, to eliminate it, to prevent such pollution both there, and in other places. Because so much of our industry is not formal, it is important for us to invest in clean tech which is affordable for small and medium scale industries to invest in. It is very, very difficult to fight pollution if you’re not going to invest at that level.”
Siddharth Singh, Author, The Great Smog of India
“The last few years have been important in our fight against pollution. Both awareness and outrage is far more widespread than ever before. However, it is still unfortunately below the threshold that can trigger political upsets based on this issue alone. For these reasons, a lot more still needs to be done. There needs to be greater understanding on how pollution impacts human health, particularly for the underprivileged and those who have greater exposure to pollutants.
While India has taken several measures to reduce pollution, it has not yet moved the needle in a significant way. We have done well in renewable energy capacity additions, energy efficiency and expanding metro systems. But in terms of reducing pollutants from existing sources, we have largely failed. This includes thermal power plants, trucks, agricultural residue burning, and construction dust. That’s what the focus should be for the next few years. It is possible to have a noticeable impact within a year or two if it was taken up on mission mode.”
Environmental pollution marginalizes the marginalized further and we cannot develop at the cost of our own citizen’s health and well being. It’s time we stop seeing environment as a barrier in development but preservation of our environment essential for development. – Shweta Narayan
Sumaira Abdulali, Founder, Awaaz Foundation
“India continues to be one of the noisiest countries in the world, even after close to two decades of campaigning against noise and even in spite of huge increases in awareness about the ill effects of noise. Although policies have been periodically updated and various court orders passed towards implementation of policies, there is still a very low level of awareness in the country about the need to take noise pollution seriously as a pervasive pollutant which has such a huge adverse impact on human health.
The ill effects of noise, according to doctors, impact not only hearing, making us a nation of deaf people, but cause changes and disease in every part of the body, contributing to heart disease, high blood pressure, mental health issues and may even cause cancer. It not only impacts human health but also affects wildlife, migratory bird patterns, marine mammals and many other forms of life in urban, rural, forest and marine environments.
Mumbai has led the anti-noise pollution campaign in India through court interventions, advocacy with government and on-ground awareness campaigns including citizen-sourced data collection and is the only Indian city where noise pollution levels fell drastically during the entire festival season 2019.
The anti-noise pollution movement needs champions in diverse parts of the country to effect long-lasting change across the board with due seriousness to its myriad adverse effects on health and environment. – Sumaira Abdulali
Decrease in noise levels included organized festivals such as Ganpati and Eid e Milad as well as those celebrated individually such as Diwali. This happened because of a groundswell of support to the campaign through individual and collective action to celebrate responsibly and force political and administrative change through sustained complaints against all kinds of violations. Such change at individual and collective level is a tribute to the spirit of Mumbai where citizens are willing to make real change in their lives as the need arises.
The government has also partnered in spreading awareness against honking and firecrackers. And even declared the year 2018 as an anti-noise pollution year. However, enforcement campaigns of the government continue to lag behind citizens’ needs and we have a long way to go before Mumbai can be considered to have solved its pervasive noise problem. The rest of the country, in the absence of any sustained campaigns, has an even longer way ahead. The anti-noise pollution movement needs champions in diverse parts of the country to effect long-lasting change across the board with due seriousness to its myriad adverse effects on health and environment.”
Shweta Narayan, Co-ordinator, Healthy Energy Initiative – India
“Environmental pollution marginalizes the marginalized further and we cannot develop at the cost of our own citizen’s health and well being. It’s time we stop seeing environment as a barrier in development but preservation of our environment essential for development. It’s time our policymakers understand that we cannot be developed if we don’t have clean air, water and good health. Citizens need to demand a pollution free environment from the government and use their collective power to hold environmental violators and regulatory agencies accountable.”
Bijal Vachharajani, Author of A Cloud Called Bhura and So You Want to Know About the Environment
“I stood surrounded by teens and tweens in Delhi. One suffered from asthma, another had left town with his family for the duration of the time that their home city was most polluted. One admitted he felt angry. Another talked about the poison that was the air. A feeling of despair washed over me but we left after an hour, talking about the need for stringent action at a policy level, the power of birds, dogs and trees; and with a feeling of hope.
Our country owes that hope to its future. I have the privilege of talking to children across India about the environment and more often than not, I meet students who only have a vague understanding of the climate crisis, or worst, have never heard of climate change. Our education system needs to take a cue from Italy and other countries to make climate and sustainability core to curriculum. Environmental Science (EVS) needs an urgent updating, with the help of scientists, illustrators and writers. Not as academic exercises but as vibrant texts that engage and question.
What’s wonderful is there’s a wealth of children’s literature about the natural world, fiction and non-fiction to turn to. Many with an Indian focus. But we also need to tell the changing climate’s story. And we need to tell it now, as editors, writers and illustrators. Stories that inspire, inform, and remind children (and adults) of the wonder that is Earth.”
Sejal Mehta, Independent writer and consultant editor at Marine Life of Mumbai
“This date, a reminder of the staggering effects of the worst industrial disaster in India, is triggering more than ever, considering the plummeting quality of the air we breathe.
The air is of course more toxic than ever, but my work with our coasts for the past few years has revealed terrifying aspects of what our oceans are struggling with in the form of industrial waste. Untreated sewage, plastic, tar balls cause great damage to all life in the water, and on the intertidal. Tar balls washed up on our sandy shores during the monsoon, smelling of diesel, just feet away from beach-goers and intertidal life. Formed by weathering of crude oil in a marine environment, tar balls are transported from open ocean to the shores by sea currents and waves and are a source of concern for marine environments (as cited in the paper: Diversity of bacteria and fungi associated with tarballs: Recent developments and future prospects by Varsha Laxman Shinde, V.Suneel, V and Shenoy, Belle Damodara (2017), National Institute of Oceanography (NIO).
Also, according to an article by Laxman Singh, Mumbai’s storm water drain (SWD) network, meant only to carry rainwater, is connected with illegal sewerage lines. According to the BMC survey, over 76,400 properties have been illegally connected to SWDs, open nullahs and creeks. This leads to huge quantity of sewage being dumped into the sea or creek without any treatment via SWD pumping stations.”