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The responsibility and cost of smog

Air Pollution is a pervasive issue that goes beyond geographical coordinates .

The responsibility and cost of smog

The dense smog, a result of polluting material mixed with vapour, which has engulfed Punjab, Haryana, western UP, parts of Rajasthan and NCR, is a matter of serious concern. The pollutants mainly come from vehicular emissions, industrial effluents and smoke from the burning of paddy straw in the fields. With a fall in the atmospheric temperature, these are suspended near the ground level; low wind speed and no rain have aggravated the problem.

As a result, the air quality index (AQI) has dropped to dangerous levels. AQI is calculated on the basis of five major pollutants - the ground level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. The AQI levels have been graded in the range of 0-500. AQI level from 0-50 are satisfactory and pose little or no risk. Moderate AQI is from 51-100, posing risk to a very small number of people, particularly those who are sensitive to ozone. The levels from 101-150 can be harmful to persons who are already suffering from respiratory problems or heart diseases; children and elderly are at a higher risk. From 151-200 are unhealthy levels for every citizen while the sensitive groups may experience more serious effects and levels between 201 and 300 send more serious alerts. AQI levels beyond 300 indicate an emergency situation. In this context, the AQI levels that touched 999 in the Punjabi Bagh area of Delhi on November 8, 2017, is definitely a cause for concern.
Smog causes suffocation, which occurs due to the relative drop in oxygen levels. The pollutants in the smog can irritate the respiratory system, causing coughing, irritation of the throat and uncomfortable sensations in the chest. The ozone in the smog can reduce lung functions and make it more difficult to breathe deeply and vigorously. There is an aggravation of asthma, which may require medication. Ozone makes people more sensitive to allergens, which are the most common triggers for asthma attacks.
Ozone may aggravate chronic lung diseases, such as emphysema and bronchitis and reduce the immune system's ability to fight off bacterial infections in the respiratory system. It also damages children's developing lungs and may lead to reduced lung functioning in adulthood.
Particulate matter includes microscopic particles and tiny droplets of liquid. Because of their small size, these particles are not stopped in the nose and upper lungs by the body's natural defences and can go deep into the lungs, where they may become trapped to cause irritation. Particulate matter can serve as a vector for toxic air pollutants. Carbon monoxide affects oxygenation of haemoglobin by forming carboxy-haemoglobin.
As a result of all these, there is a loss of man-days as the working capacity of a person is reduced. Children are not able to attend school. Since the medical advice is to avoid outdoor activity, productivity falls. In addition, fatality is aggravated due to accidents.
Every year, when the smog levels rise, there is debate and deliberation, but it soon dies down. Urgent remedial measures have to be taken. The industry needs to be regulated firmly to reduce effluents. Vehicular emissions have to be brought down and paddy straw burning needs to be checked.
There is a very little time gap between the harvesting of paddy and sowing of the wheat crop. Therefore, the easiest method for the farmers is to burn the straw and then plough the field for the next crop, even though the high temperature over the soil because of the burning of straw residue destroys useful microorganisms, causing huge loss of nitrogen, phosphorous, potash, and many other beneficial micronutrients. As per estimates, there is a loss of macro and micronutrients to the tune of Rs 1000 crores in the state of Punjab per year, due to the burning of wheat and paddy straw. As per the NGT guidelines, different agricultural machinery required for the management of straw costs around Rs 1600 crores for Punjab. It is not possible for small and marginal farmers to purchase such machinery. The Punjab government has submitted a demand for this amount to the Central government. But the Centre has so far not accepted it saying that agriculture is a state subject. However, we know, pollution is a central subject. Air pollution has no boundaries and the Centre should step in and battle this impediment.
Moreover, the farmers have a feeling that by delaying the sowing of the next crop they are losing money due to reduced yields. Therefore, if farmers are given a bonus of Rs 100 per quintal, which will cost the government around 2000 crores rupees, there is a possibility that they could be convinced to shun this practice. Many young farmers are now concerned about the fertility of the soil as well as the health effects of smoke. The state and the Central governments should share this responsibility. The overall cost has to be evaluated with the health cost borne by the people, which could be much higher as it involves the cost on the disease, loss of man-days, loss of production, loss of schooling and mental stress.
(Dr Arun Mitra is senior Vice President Indian Doctors for Peace and Development. Views expressed are strictly personal.)

Arun Mitra

Arun Mitra

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