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There’s An Urgent Need To Fix India’s Declining Air Quality

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“Cleaning our surroundings is also one way of serving Mother India, it’s with small chores that big goals are accomplished” -Prime Minister Narendra Modi

According to WHO’s World Global Ambient Air, the air quality in India is bad and is becoming a serious public health issue with serious repercussions on the quality of life and the economy.

The database shows that air pollution is a global problem nine out of ten people breathe highly polluted air and about 80% of the people living in cities have to breathe in poor air that exceeds health standards.

However, there are some places where the air quality is worse than others. Eleven out of the twelve most polluted of these cities are in India. Kanpur, with a population of 3 million, tops the list with an average of 319 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5 per year. It is closely followed by PM 10, NO2, CO, and Ozone. The only pollutant to comply with the permissible national standards is SO2. The sources for PM2.5 are open flames and diesel exhausts. They can stay in the air longer and penetrate deeper into the lungs than larger particles. This is why they are more hazardous and a high priority concern for health and government agencies.

The source of PM 2.5 is the burning of coal, and wood for cooking, vast stretches of hills and mountains act as basins that trap toxic air making it too dangerous to breathe.

Toxic air is a problem in almost all countries. However, it is the developing countries that bear the brunt of pollution as the problem gets more serious with teeming populations living in slums and makeshift houses without adequate measures to combat the hazardous effects of air toxicity.

The underprivileged have to rely on cookstoves, heating fuel, and kerosene for lighting and heating. These are all common sources of pollution in developing countries. Often lax enforcement of standards for car exhausts, crop burning, or dust from construction sites leads to more particulates in the air.

The government is implementing reforms to keep pollution in check as dirty air has become an increasingly volatile public concern. The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) is one of the flagship schemes of the Narendra Modi government. The scheme aims at five crores LPG connections to BPL families with the support of Rs 1,600 per connection in the next three years. Unlike China, governing air pollution has proved to be much more difficult in India with multiple layers of government and differences between the state and the central government. In India, there is a gap in air pollution policy that restricts its implementation. Moreover, outrage over deteriorating air quality has been restricted.

The National Capital of Delhi with a population of approximately nineteen million is facing a severe air quality crisis, the heavy pollution often forcing flight cancellations, road accidents, schools have to be closed often as children like the elderly are a highly vulnerable group. The toxic air has turned Delhi into a “gas chamber,” and last year a public health emergency was declared.

But it is not the urban areas alone that are to blame, often the hazardous air that blankets cities originate in rural areas as was seen in case of crop and stubble burning by farmers in Punjab and Haryana. Significantly, very often the villages are as badly affected by toxic air as the cities. To give a clearer picture of the scale of the problem outdoor air pollution was linked to 1.1 million deaths, while indoor air pollution caused by the burning of solid fuels such as wood, dung, and crop residues in people’s homes for cooking and heat was the cause of another 977,000 deaths.

About two-thirds of India’s population lives outside of cities, and 80% of these households rely on biomass like wood and dung for cooking and heating. This coupled with agricultural practices like crop and stubble burning leads to increasing smokes that often drifts over metro cities like Chennai and Mumbai in the south and Delhi, Lucknow, Kanpur in the north. Here it mixes with exhaust fumes, factory emissions, and dust from construction sites. Unlike the southern cities, northern areas are landlocked and do not have the advantage of being close to the sea.

While anti-pollution laws exist in India, they are not enforced well. For example, the ban on firecrackers is hardly implemented beyond a few areas. Same goes for stubble burning, it is difficult for the urban elite to convince the village folk to change their practices just as it is difficult for rural dwellers to ask the urban folks to cut down on vehicle usage.

Few short-term measures can be adopted like avoiding morning walks, planting air-purifying indoor plants, and making sure that children and the elderly restrict outdoor activities. However, these are not enough.

The effects of air pollution are not immediate but slowly creep into our bodies, affecting not just our hearts and lungs but slowing down our cognition skills. Air pollution is also the leading risk factor for early death and disability, contributing to conditions such as stroke, heart disease, respiratory infections, and lung cancer.

While there can be no magic pill to bring about sudden change, there is need to introduce measures to control air pollution that include clean energy, reduction in vehicle usage, clean technologies in industries, planting more trees. More monitoring stations are required. We also need to focus on regions in the country, where people have more exposure to toxic levels of pollution like Delhi. A multi-sectoral approach, driven by environment and health data, science, and evidence so that people’s can breathe in healthier air in both urban and rural areas.

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  1. Sakshi Malik

    India’s Central Pollution Control Board monitors four air pollutants namely sulfur dioxide (SO2), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), suspended particulate matter (SPM) and respirable particulate matter (PM10). And as per the reports most, Indian cities continue to violate India’s and world air quality PM10 targets. There is a growing number of people suffering from Asthma and other respiratory problems. Until unless we together start acting towards our environment the situation will remain the same and even worse. We need to make some effort and clear the air.

    At the current stage what we can do is to protect ourselves by using a mask that has N99 + Carbon Filtration system with a total of 4 different layers that filters a large amount of dust and allergen. Indian brands like Crusaders air purifier is purely contributing towards eradicating this problem by providing a range of products that offer an extra layer of filtration technique that is made for the Indian pollution level.

  2. Amrita199

    Well short term solutions are never as effective as they should be and for how long should we keep on relying on these different short term plans? Government needs to work more efficiently towards eradication of this problem and the citizens have the same responsibility as well. One can’t do anything alone and the problem has risen to such a level now that no matter what measures we take, we cannot get rid of it in a day, the process will take time and that too a lot. In the meanwhile we also need to understand the need for adopting preventive measures that can help us deal as little damage as we can. Measures like wearing of masks to breathe better outdoors, cleaning of indoor as well as outdoor air, installation of Air purifiers, healthy eating and drinking habits and what not. Also while adopting these measures one needs to understand that our environment is not like the environment that foreign countries have and their inventions cannot efficiently help us. We need new technology that has been made keeping in mind the surroundings we live in. Indian organic food, Air purifiers and masks with better filters and things like that. For these, methods of in house organic farming can be easily searched online, Brands like Crusaders can be considered for air purifiers due to their multi layered filters, Dietary charts that provide you with more nourishment etc. can be chosen. We don’t know when will we get rid of this problem but we sure should know how can we survive in the meantime.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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