Waking up late to the crisis of air pollution, the debate in the Lok Sabha was more about blame-game and mutual mudslinging than about displaying urgency and collective resolve to tackle the grave problem. It is unfortunate that the pollution debate has been politicised at a time when people across North India are exposed to serious health risks because of hazardous air quality. Apart from dishing out generalities and blaming political rivals, the debate has not yielded any tangible ideas for a long-term sustainable strategy to check air pollution. The fact that only 115 members were present in the 534-member House when the debate took place speaks volumes about the state of affairs. Instead of taking the issue head-on, some members argued that stubble burning by farmers of Punjab and Haryana should not be blamed for the rising pollution levels in the national capital. In the name of sounding politically correct, one cannot afford to gloss over the problem by insulating a particular section of society from responsibility. It is estimated that paddy stubble-burning contributes 30-40% to North India’s air pollution in October-November every year. Farmers usually burn the residue after harvesting paddy in autumn to clear the fields and make way for the sowing of wheat in winter. This is done to reduce the turnaround time between the harvest and sowing of the second crop. The solution lies in nudging farmers in these States to shift from paddy cultivation to alternative commercial crops. Burning of crackers during Diwali further adds to the pollution levels.
Air pollution is a silent killer in India. According to the State of Global Air 2018 report, over 11 lakh pollution-related deaths are reported in the country every year. Sadly, the governments have still not understood the severity of the issue. India needs to learn from China where anti-pollution strategies have met with credible success, particularly in Beijing that was once ranked among the worst polluted cities in the world. Children are the worst affected due to air pollution. The Global Burden of Disease report of 2017 found that India loses one child every three minutes due to polluted air. Fine particulate matters, especially those that are less than 2.5 micrometres, called PM2.5, pose a severe health threat. These particulate matters travel deep into the respiratory tract and deposit in the lungs causing a range of diseases, including cancer. A WHO report of 2017 has revealed over six lakh children died due to air pollution across the world. The problem is much more acute in developing countries like India where nearly 98% of the children breathe toxic air. Air pollution has far-ranging effects, be it on health, productivity and quality of life.