An opinion piece published in a leading American daily has got the global media buzzing. Not surprisingly the global media ‘discovers’ issues only once they have passed the nascent stages. The opinion piece nurtures the sort of Orientalism and mild Xenophobia one had thought the western media had shed a long time back. The article calls Delhi — among the most populous, polluted, unsanitary and bacterially unsafe cities on earth. It makes these assertions by slicing and dicing a variety of studies to the extent that the tone deafness soon reminds one of the casual stereotyping by expats and tourists one witnesses in the streets of India. If the opinion piece had talked about snake charmers and elephants in the midst of complaining about how air in India is not as cool, serene and ranch like as in the United States, then one would not have been surprised. It’s not a surprising stance coming from a columnist who had previously written how there was an epidemic of rabid dogs in Delhi (there isn’t).
The Modi government, however, needs to be thinking about how they are going attract Foreign Direct Investment if top expat managerial talent refuse to live in major Indian cities. At the core of the opinion piece, however, lay a kernel of solid truth, even if that truth was presented in a rather alarmist fashion. The deadly heat wave that swept through most parts of India leaving death in its wake was not the first in the list of worries of Delhi residents. However, the heat-wave has made life worse for Delhi’s most vulnerable citizens, its children.
The heat-wave has had a proto- greenhouse gas effect of sorts, exacerbating the woes of the millions of children who live in Delhi. India and Delhi, in particular, has a deadly cocktail of factors which contribute to the deteriorating air quality: fast-growing industrial base, densely congested cities with some of the highest concentrations of populations per square kilometres, a slew of polluting vehicles which do not go through mandatory checks and worst of all the widespread burning of trash as a method of disposal. The opinion piece does point to a pertinent study that tracked the health of 11,000 Indian children aged 4 to 17 for three years. It’s safe to say that in terms of scale and rigour, this study was unprecedented.
This unprecedented study, by the Kolkata-based Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute (CNCI), found that key indicators of respiratory health, lung function to palpitation, vision to blood pressure, children in Delhi, between 4 and 17 years of age, were worse off than their counterparts elsewhere — the figures were twice to four times as bad. How bad? In lung tests conducted on 5718 students, 43.5 percent suffered from “poor or restrictive lungs”. About 15 percent of the children surveyed complained of frequent eye irritation, 27.4 percent of frequent headache, 11.2 percent of nausea, 7.2 percent of palpitation and 12.9 percent of fatigue.
Delhi’s numbers were far higher than that among the control group of 4536 students selected from 17 schools spread across the “much less polluted” rural areas of Uttaranchal and West Bengal. The conclusion was nothing less than devastating: About half of the 4.4 million children who live in Delhi have irreversible lung damage. However, not all hope is lost. Concerned over increasing air pollution, the Delhi government has decided to make all the main roads dust free, congestion-free and clean, claiming that by this initiative, 25 percent pollution can be decreased in the national capital. Hopefully, this will be the first of many proactive steps to come from the Delhi government. Delhi’s children need clean air to grow up in.