Breathing: A Simple Act That Has Become Difficult in India

Taking a deep breath and then exhale This simple act is something that in India could lead to several illnesses and even death. As the air quality in India declines, the new-found prosperity of the nation faces floundering under the weight of the increasing medical emergencies brought on by the very mechanisms that have driven it.

Air pollution refers to the contamination of air by materials that can interfere with the health of people and their quality of life. There are four important kinds of pollution, water, noise, soil and the topic of this article, air.

How Bad is the Pollution Problem in India? 

India is number eight on the list of top twenty nations in the world with the most polluted air, way ahead of China which listed at number thirteen. That means that the amounts of contaminants in the air in India’s city and rural areas are enormous.

The publication The India Times May 2018, reported that every year in India, 26.45% of the Indian population die prematurely from diseases directly caused by that nation’s poor air quality. That figure translates into roughly 355 million people dying every year from pollution.

What is happening? What is being done by the government to help the people of India keep pace with the world economically without destroying the health of its population?

Worsening Air Quality

The city of Delhi has become notorious for its chokingly poor air quality. In fact, it is so bad that the once white marble walls of the Taj Mahal have turned green.

The sad fact is that Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh was declared in May of 2018 the most polluted city on the globe and was forced to cancel flights and close schools as its levels of pollution reached “off-the-charts” levels.

Human activity in India creates both greenhouse gases that are warming our planet and poor air quality that work together to harm the health of Indian citizens.

In the winter months from October through January, the festival of Diwali occurs and with it a severe increase in air pollution. The effects are most felt in the city of Delhi as firecrackers are burned during the festival.

However, there is another factor that makes air quality drop during the winter months, the changing weather patterns caused by climate change.

 Climate Change and Poor Air Quality

In November 2017, the capital city of Delhi in India was hit by air pollution so vile that the city’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal described living there as being in a “gas chamber.”

While the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States considers anything over 300 to be hazardous to humans, the air quality index in Delhi was reported to be in the range of 700 to 1,000.

The air quality of Delhi was so high that there was no mistaking but that millions of people are breathing it and were in grave danger of developing lung cancer, asthma and damaging other vital organs.

Those most in danger were the children as air pollution that severe would not allow their young bodies to develop good lungs and could damage their brains. The effects of this damage were irreversible and would last a lifetime.

The Hazardous Health Consequences of Winter 

The mechanism of this seasonal health hazard is easily understood.

As the climate gets warmer, India is experiencing longer dry spells. The increase in warmth and decrease in moisture have created depressions that pull winds from the oceans surrounding India.

With the less rain and green barriers in and around Indian cities, the ocean winds pick up dust that inundates the cities and countryside cause a considerable reduction in air quality.

This dust mixes with the other particulates already present in the heavily polluted air of India’s urban and rural areas making a toxic mess that her people are forced to breathe.

While gases coming from the combustion of wood, fields, and dung are contributors to the health problems plaguing India, particulate matter pollution is the main reason for the massive uptick of lung and other diseases that are killing the Indian people.

Particulate Matter (PM)

Particulate matter is made up of fine granules and droplets such as dust, fly ash, soot, smoke, aerosols, fumes, mists and vapors that can remain suspended in the air and breathed by humans. Some forms of PM can be seen with the naked eye, but much of it cannot so people breathe in these toxins unaware of how they have affected them.

An article in Scientific India in 2017 reported that there are many emitters of particulate matter including vehicle emissions, power plant emissions, the manufacturing of products such as electronic components, and landfills.

Vehicle emissions in India have seen an enormous rise since India has begun to experience greater prosperity. Many people in the cities of India have chosen to opt for owning and operating their own car or truck instead of more traditional modes of transportation.

Dangerous sulfur dioxide coming from the combustion of the fuels to run automobiles and the growing number of vehicles being used to haul products by train and airplanes are major factors of air pollution in India.

The Republic of India has been busy creating its niche among the industrialized world building factories to compete on the world market. These factories require vast amounts of electricity and with demand comes supply.

The power plants in this developing country are the second leading coal burners in the world after China. That makes India a significant contributor to greenhouse gases that creates health hazards for her people, including carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide.

A Manufacturing a Nightmare

The factories functioning in India release a large amount of particulate matter as waste from the manufacturing process into the air.

The manufacturing plants in India take part in the world’s largest market for used electronic components. Because of the lower cost of labor and a lack of government regulations, about 80% of the world’s greed for electronics is satisfied by countries such as India and other developing nations.

Many the people of India are involved in the processing industry of electronics. However, insufficient protective measures are taken as workers dismantle old electronic components by using chemicals to leach printed circuit boards, burning waste off wires and components, and washing metal parts of milled black powder.

Outside of these inhumane and unsafe working conditions placed on the people of India who labor daily in these manufacturing plants, are the enormous contributions these plants make to particulate waste into the atmosphere of India.

Landfills as Polluters of the Air

The characteristic barrage of horrible odors emitting from a landfill is caused by the release of hydrogen sulfide and ammonia gas. Materials from the construction and demolition of buildings, like drywall, create large amounts of these gases.

While low levels of hydrogen sulfide and ammonia gas are not harmful to humans, long-term exposure of up to two weeks can cause coughing, irritated eyes, nose and throat, headaches, nausea and breathing problems.

Usually, the symptoms of exposure to landfill gases will go away if the exposure ends, but the longer people are near these stinky gases, the worse their symptoms will become.

The person exposed for extended amounts of time can present with sleeping difficulties, weight loss, chest pain and be at high risk for life-threating asthma.

Landfills also produce methane and carbon dioxide which are produced when bacteria break down organic waste.

The asphyxiant Methane also is emitted by the growing number of landfills in India’s countryside. These gases are self-perpetuating and even after the landfill is closed can continue to be ejected for more than fifty years.

Landfill gases will migrate from the landfill site into the air and infiltrate homes of people living nearby. They can also travel underground through utility entry points such as water and power lines and create a significant health hazard to people many miles away from the landfill that produced them.

Methane and carbon dioxide are colorless and odorless and displace oxygen in enclosed spaces such as basements of buildings where these gases have infiltered from a nearby or distant landfill.

People who live or work in enclosed spaces where methane and carbon dioxide are present can present with reduced coordination, fatigue nausea, vomiting, unconsciousness or death.

If unchecked, landfills could become the number one leading emitter of methane in the country.

The Statistics of a National Tragedy: Rural Pollution


What is even more stunning is the fact related by a news article by CNN in May of 2018.

The article stated that 75% of air quality deaths in India occur in rural areas as opposed to city regions. So, it is not just people living in cities like Delhi who are dying young, citizens living in the countryside on farms and small villages are dying too.

The worsening air pollution in rural India isn’t caused by only one source; it has many causes.

People who live in rural settings everyday use fuels such as wood, coal, crop waste and cow dung to light and burn the fires that they cook with as women prepare the meals for their home.

The polluting particles created by combusting these fuels don’t stay within the home, instead, it travels beyond the walls adding to the already dire poor air quality of the country.

Also driving the pollution coming from rural areas is the large-scale crop residue burning that farmers do in their fields during the autumn and winter months.

Burning off crop stubble is a traditional way of returning nutrients to the soil. Even in modern times, farmers in India cannot afford the large and expensive farming equipment that would replace stubble burning and lift the danger of the smoke contaminating the country.

The Economic Times reported last week that 32% of the pollution hitting Dehli was a direct result of stubble burning in  Punjab and Haryana. While the burning isn’t the only reason for the massive pollution in Dehli, it is a large contributor of it.

Unfortunately, it is the winter months the winds shift making the air quality almost unbreathable as the smog from the burning of the fields keeps the smoke inland and not drifting out to sea.

The Economic Impact of Poor Air Quality to India

In a report published in the India Times in June of 2018, the cost of poor air quality makes it clear that if not ended, the decreasing quality of clean air will cost India dearly.

The cost to India regarding labor losses stood at 405.8 billion INR ($55.39 billion) or .84% of its gross domestic product. That price tag is even higher than that of China which also lost big that year.

Just yesterday, October 27, 2018, Delhi found itself bracing for the wicked onslaught of smoke, fog, and haze they are expecting in the next few days.

Smoke from unregulated crop burning and burning landfill sites, pollution from vehicles and factories added to toxic fumes from firecrackers means that the air quality in the city will once again become a “gas chamber.”

In fact, the quality of air in Delhi dropped to the worst ever recorded there in October, this year, with ongoing construction and manufacturing bringing on a blanket of haze and particulate matter.

This increase in air pollution and lowering of good breathable air robs India more and more each year as its citizens face health crises and loss of the ability to work.

If nothing is done, the deaths, illnesses, and loss of income to the manufacturing sector which is driving the economy of India will falter and die.

With the loss of the ability to compete in the global marketplace, the country of India will lose her push for wealth for all her people.

What Can Be Done?

 India is a democracy, and as such, they have highly competitive elections. Since the most significant spike in winter is caused by stubble burning in the rural areas, India is hard pressed to impose fines on its farmers. This makes the problem very difficult for politicians who depend on their votes and cooperation to handle.

However, the government of India is waking up to the hard facts of how air pollution will rob their country of the economic power they have been seeking.

The Indian government has invested in control sources of pollution, such as ordering diesel buses to convert to natural gas and offering drivers the odd-even rule where private cars may use the roads depending on their registration numbers on their license plates.

The government has also decided that to tackle the poor air quality of India, they must coordinate efforts across all ministries, including finance, agriculture, rural development, power, and transportation.

To do so, they formed a committee who recommended switching to clean energy sources for cook stoves, public transport, and industry.

They also proposed to lower the traffic of pollution causing vehicles clogging India’s roadways by imposing a higher fuel tax and parking fees, plus charging congestion charges.

The government also decided that making more vehicle-free zones and cycle paths would get people out of their cars and onto new bicycle paths.

The government of India also began researching other means to help their people breathe better and found an excellent resource in California of the U.S. California had discovered that for each dollar into actions for clean air; they reaped a return of $30 US.

That makes following the example of California by India highly valuable to utilizing the financial resources to help her citizens breathe.

In 2013, Veerabhadran Ramanathan, professor of Atmospheric and Climate Sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, teamed up with the Air Resources Board to begin the implementation of the India-California Air Pollution Mitigation Program.

The India-California Pollution Mitigation Program looked at technical solutions like cleaning up car emissions by forcing owners to keep their vehicles in top working order by doing periodic checks.

When problems were found during these mandatory checks, vehicles found to be not working correctly and thus adding to the pollution problem would be required to not operate on roadways.

Following this suggestion, India’s supreme court recently banned the registration of diesel vehicles in the city of Delhi to tackle the horrific pollution problem there.

Other measures Delhi have implanted include raising penalties for burning rubbish and better control of road dust.

To tackle the domestic problem of air pollution, in December of 2017, the government of India decided to remove subsidies for polluting cooking stoves by 50%, making the use of clean fuels more appealing to Indian households.

Working Together India Can Conquer Its Poor Air Quality Problem

While much work needs to be done to improve air quality, India has several considerable incentives to do so. Not only does her people want to breathe the air without a mask, but they also do not want to die early from a preventable illness. Also, Indian children deserve better than to have profoundly damaged lungs that will never heal.

By working together as the great and resilient people they are, the population of the Republic of India will tackle the horrendous air pollution that plagues their land.

It is not a matter of if India will win over poor air quality, but judging by the history of her people, it is a matter of when.

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