Children under six years are most vulnerable to poor air quality, as their lungs are still developing and susceptible to particulate matter
Delhi NCT, the capital of the fastest growing economy in the world, is grappling to breathe. There are 59,21,350 children in the age group of 0-18 years (NIUA, 2018) who are facing health threats due to air pollution ever since they were born. Children under six years are most vulnerable to poor air quality, as their lungs are still developing and susceptible to particulate matter. As per the latest NFHS-5 (2020-21), the prevalence of symptoms of acute respiratory infection (ARI) among children under five is 5.6 per cent and it has more than doubled from 2.4 per cent in 2015-16.
While children with fever or symptoms of ARI in the two weeks preceding the survey taken to a health facility or health provider reduced by 4.7 per cent from 81.4 per cent in NFHS-4 (2015-16) to 76.7 per cent (2020-21). This reduction may need further investigations by experts as the 2019-20 and 2020-21 period was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic caused lockdowns and many health facilities prioritised COVID-19 patients due to the dire state of affairs during this period. In the hindsight, people have also witnessed a glimpse of clean air and the environment in their respective cities owing to the shutdowns.
PM2.5 the menace
A majority of pollutants released into the atmosphere are anthropogenic emissions. A recent study by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) attributes PM 2.5, a major contributor to poor air quality in any city, as a major cause of respiratory and heart-related diseases in children. As per the urbanemissions.info, Delhi air quality forecast for 27 November 2021 indicated multiple sources of PM2.5 with the biggest emitters being on-road dust (16.2 per cent), household (15.9 per cent), industries (14.5 per cent), power plants +DG sets (12.7 per cent), passenger vehicles (8.2 per cent), open waste burning (7.5 per cent), etc.
In comparison, on 3 May 2022, the biggest emitter of PM2.5 was a dust storm (27.3 per cent) followed by on-road dust (14.9 per cent), open fires (11.7 per cent), global sources (10.9 per cent), household (7.8 per cent), passenger vehicles (7.3 per cent), and power plants +DG sets (12.7 per cent).
In both the months, the common (high) sources of PM2.5 are on-road dust, and household. With temperatures already soaring, heat waves and air pollution have deteriorated the living conditions for the people in Delhi NCT. The dust storm has further exacerbated the problems for children, elderlies, and those having respiratory or related issues.
Small steps to help save children’s health
We need to remember children don’t behave like adults, and their behaviour also affects their vulnerability. They are outside for longer periods and are usually more active when outdoors. Consequently, they inhale more polluted outdoor air than adults typically do.
Hence, there is an urgent need to take preventive and pre-emptive measures to control air pollution esp. PM2.5 in Delhi NCT. Children, who are born in 2001 and are 21 years old now, may not be aware that there are various stretches in Delhi where several trees, green spaces, etc. were removed for visibility of shops, parking lots, widening roads, buildings, etc. There is always digging work happening all through the year and that contributes to poor air quality. It also indicates that there is a lack of convergence in planning civil works with emission control measures by different departments (State, Central, or both) in Delhi NCT. A data-driven approach at the Ward level must be prioritised for effective policy and efficient planning to take localized measures.
Air quality monitoring stations should be put up in unserved locations to get real-time data. This will help authorities to take appropriate steps in reducing emissions. There should also be regular monitoring of small, medium to large-scale construction sites in Delhi NCT to ensure air quality protocols and compliances that were agreed upon while approving the same. In addition, authorities should make this part of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) for medium and large-scale construction sites and this assessment must include the indicator on children (0-18) and other vulnerable populations (e.g. number, health, etc.) residing in proximity to these sites.
In case the requisite protocols for curbing pollution are not followed then they should be fined under the appropriate environment act.
As per NCRB-2020, there is a rise in the registration of environment-related offences in the country. 61,767 cases were registered in the year 2020 as compared to 34, 676 in 2019. Similarly, there is a rise in the registration of environment-related offences in Delhi NCT from 17 in 2018 to 23 in 2020 (NCRB-2020). Crime head-wise analysis of cases for Delhi-NCT for the year 2020 revealed that the cases registered under COTPA were the highest (16) followed by The Wild-life Protection Act (6) and The Air & The Water (Prevention & Control of Pollution) Act (1). This clearly shows that there is not enough reporting on environment-related offences, and needs to be encouraged.
In 2018, the active citizen raised concerns and protested against the felling of trees for the redevelopment of colonies in south Delhi.
Children, local citizens, and RWAs should seek advice from urban ecologists/arborists for plant species that help curb air pollution and do more tree plantations around all the identified pollution hotspots. These plantation efforts should be incentivized by rewarding the Wards for taking such measures. The concerned Horticulture department to launch green drives in different wards at regular intervals and monitor the well-being of plantations.
The government should take inclusive decisions to install smog towers (large-scale air purifiers) so that slums and low-income areas are covered. It will help if the government can devise policy interventions to support poor households with good quality fuels around the year. A nutritious diet is to be ensured for children to prevent them from poor air quality as malnourished children are more susceptible to bronchitis, pneumonia, and related respiratory infections.
Manish Thakre works with Save the Children India as Head Urban Programme and Policy. Views are personal.