Interim budget fails to clear the air

Interim budget fails to clear the air

Interim Union Finance Minister Piyush Goyal, in the interim budget, made a slew of promises and announcements for the environmental sector. However, most of the environmental issues — pollution-free nation, cleaning rivers, protecting the coastline, self-sufficiency in food and good health infrastructure — only found a mention in the ‘vision for the next decade’ section of his speech.

The only silver lining in the interim budget was the allocation for the National Commission for Green India being increased to Rs 240 crore, and a thumping self-styled pat on the back when Goyal said “India provided leadership to the global climate change effort. Our commitment to promote renewable energy is reflected in our initiative to set up International Solar Alliance”.

None of these had any tangible targets or action plans, especially when one talks about a young India with a population having an average age less than 25. Unfortunately, at Rs 100 crore, the 2019-20 allocation remained the same as last year for the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). The Centre decreased the allocation for pollution abatement by 50%, from Rs 20 crore last year to Rs 10 crore, for 2019-20.

In this context, it would be apt to understand the challenges and opportunities of the air pollution crisis for a new generation born into smoking ‘cigarettes’ from the very first breath, to being subjected to inhale polluted air, a legacy of urban growth passed on to them, alas a life that they would not long for.

Children constitute over one-third of the population. How
they handle toxins places them at far greater risk than the adult population and the younger they are, the greater the risk. They are also closer to the ground so at greater risk to suspended low-hanging pollutants.

In fact, this risk begins even before birth with studies demonstrating how air pollution exposure to the mother results in numerous adverse outcomes for the unborn child including low birth weight and in acute cases still-births. While the number of years each child is losing due to air pollution is still being debated, it would be highly unlikely to expect that our smog-filled environs is actually extending the lives.

The World Health Organisation recently released a report on the impacts of air pollution on child health, following a global warning by Unicef. In terms of health effects, a number of different conditions were highlighted besides asthma and pneumonia including autism, childhood cancer and obesity.

While respiratory-related conditions have been fairly well researched in the Indian context, there is a paucity of evidence for other outcomes. But the absence of evidence does not in any way amount to the evidence of absence. As research for these conditions takes place in the Indian context, we will certainly see similar results although relative risk may differ.

The impact of air pollution for children goes beyond health. With mounting global evidence indicating that air pollution has deleterious effects on the brain including cognition and learning, the impact on education in India hasn’t even been considered. A US study, for example, has shown that when students taking standardised tests are separated into two groups, one where air quality is better and one worse, the ones where air quality is better perform significantly better.

Already with the sort of air pollution levels seen in India, especially cities like Delhi and other growing so-called ‘smart-cities’ marked under the pathetic pollution levels by WHO, many schools have stopped outdoor physical activity for children, a factor that is important for the growth of any child. In addition, there is always the ‘sword of Damocles’ hanging over school authorities to shut down schools.

Gloom, innovation

However in this gloom, today’s youngsters will certainly make the lotus bloom. Youngsters are now at the forefront of innovation that was unthinkable 10 years ago.

Amply demonstrated by creating a sensor for traffic congestion or an app for personal monitoring of pollution, these youngsters are now becoming effective champions of change through innovation, apart from propagating the conventional ideas of using public transport or car pools, planting trees or simply by wearing a mask when they step outside in very poor air quality.

Children can be harbingers of change but ultimately at a societal level we adults have to take responsibility and ensure radical changes in emission reductions. After all, children are the most innocent victims of a world they did not create. Let’s give them a long life along with the world worth longing for.

To sum up, one hopes the upcoming government, post the general elections this year, don’t have environment defeated to development, else one will have to take the words of a famous environmentalist seriously: “The cost of our society’s success is energy crises, climate change, pollution, and the destruction of our habitat. If we continue in the same direction, there will be nothing left for our children.”

(The writer, environmental health and communications expert, is Vice President, External Affairs, Sahajanad Medical Technologies, New Delhi)