Smog poses huge existential crisis

| | in Oped

Callous response by various Governments to the air pollution crises has been an annual affair now. A viable policy initiative is needed

Why is the Capital of India and its neighbourhood always caught napping when it comes to dealing with predictable public health crises? Unrelenting spike in number of dengue cases and the smog that choke the National Capital Region every year this time around, are two glaring example of how we may appear inept at designing and executing a smart public crisis response system. This requires a comprehensive overhaul of approach.

The figures for dengue for past three years, for instance, looks scary. According to the National Vector Borne Disease Control Programme, Directorate General of Health Services, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, this year, till November 5, Delhi reported 7,358 cases, and four fatalities due to dengue. In 2016, the figures were 4,431 and 10 respectively.

With 15,867 cases and 60 deaths, 2015 was the worst year since 2010. While we do see ritualistic advertisements in the form of advisory in newspapers, one is not sure how effectively they impact behaviour change. There are a series of other impressive post-outbreak measures, as per a September 2016 release by the Delhi Government, but the continued spike in the number remains a cause of worry. Perhaps there is a need to tweak the approach.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends what it calls ‘Integrated Vector Control’ or IVM approach to control mosquito vectors, including those of dengue. “Transmission control activities should target Ae aegypti (or any of the other vectors depending on the evidence of transmission) in its immature (egg, larva, and pupa) and adult stages in the household and immediate vicinity. This includes other settings where human-vector contact occurs, such as schools, hospitals and workplaces,” WHO says.

It further adds that some man-made container habitats produce large numbers of adult mosquitoes and, therefore, control efforts should target these habitats which are  epidemiologically more important rather than all types of container, especially when there are major resource constraints. The WHO recommends a three-pronged approach for vector control: Environmental management, chemical control and biological control.  Additionally, large-scale involvement of communities and private institutions, including colleges and hospitals, year-round campaign on awareness, and expansive use of social media are some other methods that the Government may deploy.

The situation on pollution also calls for far more drastic set of measures that we hear, more as rituals. An image by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (Nasa) Aqua satellite on November 7, showed India in natural colour and as many areas of the ground below are fully concealed, which gave a sense of the haze density. Particulate assessments from the same satellite further demonstrate how thick the air in the capital has been.

“With the arrival of cooler weather in November, the smoke mixed with fog, dust, and industrial pollution to form a particularly thick haze. A lack of wind, which usually helps disperse air pollution, worsened the problem,” said Nasa. That crop burning has been a major contributor to this problem, and an annual crisis, is a well-known fact, yet, the Governments in Delhi, Haryana and Punjab are left either wondering or quibbling over how to control this. World over, cities are resorting to varied means to control this menace.

In 2015, Milan imposed a six-hour ban on private cars, while Rome introduced odd-even system and Florence restricted automobile access. In Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, authorities advised people to restrict the use of private vehicles and asked residents to adopt alternate means of transportation and to reduce their movement outdoors, particularly during morning and evening hours. Beijing too introduced alternate-day driving while Tehran closed schools and postponed soccer matches to restrict people's movement.

While most of these are temporary solutions, and typical to cities, Delhi and NCR may require to look for more sustainable, long-term solutions, a point reiterated by the Supreme Court on Monday. Enhanced use of renewable energy, use of environment-friendly consumer products, smog detection and monitoring system, providing use of biological solutions as an alternative to crop burning, massive shift in car use behaviour by pushing car pool, and subsidised public transportation on car ban days are some of the probable solutions Governments can look into. Roping in farmers groups and providing them comprehensive packages are also critical.

Rohtak MP, Deepender Singh Hooda has elevated the pitch on the need to address this issue on a war footing by writing to the Prime Minister, asking him to constitute and head a committee with all north Indian Chief Ministers, and by proposing to bring in a Right to Clean Air Bill in the upcoming Winter session of Parliament. One hopes, politicians of all hues, give heed to Hooda's pitch and rise above politics to address this massive existential crisis. For fresh air to breathe forms the basis of human existence.

(The writer is a strategic communications professional)

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