Demand Action to Declare & Treat Polluted Toxic Air as Emergency

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My parents are old and one of them suffers from breathing issues. They live in Delhi and so do my sisters and other relatives.

A Supreme Court mandated panel declared public health emergency in Delhi-NCR region on 1st Nov. 2019. It banned construction activity till 5th of November and schools were shut in Delhi, till 15th Nov 2019.

I was shocked to see that though an emergency was declared all other activities went on as nothing had happened. Shops were open, people were supposed to report to work, autos/cabs ran as usual, students reported to schools in NCR - why hurt the business right? With the heightened media coverage we know that Delhi's Air Quality Index (AQI) is unhealthy to breathe all round year with few days of moderate quality of air. Unfortunately, the toxic air is not limited to Delhi. More than 10 cities in India feature in the worldwide most polluted list. At times cities like Kanpur and Varanasi has AQI worse than in Delhi. 

Every three minutes a child dies in India because of inhaling toxic pollutants in the air, according to an analysis of the Global Burden of Disease 2017.  (Source: Down To Earth) Why deaths due to polluted toxic air not considered a disaster yet? Disasters like flood, earthquake or cyclone. Is it because the death is slow and inside the four walls of our homes or hospitals. Clean air is our right.  

In Delhi, public health emergency was declared under the Graded Response Action Plan for Delhi & NCR (GRAP). GRAP came in place in Delhi & NCR in response to the Supreme Court order in December 2016. It does not place safeguarding people as its focus. Also, the GRAP waters down AQI - it uses words like moderate to poor, very poor, severe, severe+ or emergency. These words do not directly relate to health. To understand, AQI (PM2.5) above 150 unhealthy, above 200 is very unhealthy and 300-500 is hazardous to health. Above 500 is not categorized by EPA. Maybe we never thought that air would go so bad but now we are living in it (Source: AQI Guide EPA).

My parents, you and all of us do not need to suffer from this silently. We need to demand strong National Policy/inclusion in Disaster Management Act emergency measures to safeguard us from polluted toxic air not panels or committees. On 9th Nov. 17 in response to Delhi air pollution Environment Ministry formed a high-level committee (news reports). This year on 5th Nov, two years down the line PMO again sets panel to monitor air quality in National Capital (news reports). 

There are measures for flood prevention and norms for evacuation. When an area is flooded there is whole machinery dedicated with a focused plan to minimize the disaster or deaths. Same is with earthquake, cyclones, tsunami. But, when we talk about air pollution we are limited to prevention plans and not emergency action plan focused on people to safeguard lives.   

It is time for a national policy/inclusion in Disaster Management Act that deals with extremely polluted air as a disaster. Detailed emergency measures to safeguard our lives and health damage from the polluted and toxic air. Flood needs disaster management, so does dealing with toxic killer air. The central and state environment ministers needs to get a team of experts on an urgent basis and draft this to safeguard people from polluted air (i.e. AQI more than 50). We demand all these provisions (but not limited only to these). 

(1) Monitor AQI Nationwide. Make it mandatory to publish city-wise figures in newspapers and include it in weather reports across radio & local/national news channels. Install monitors all towns. 

(2) Regulate pollution by industries, vehicles, construction etc. to ensure AQI less than 50. 

(3) in cities/towns where AQI have been more than 150 for more than 19 days in a year, distribute reusable air pollution masks with N99 filter that fights PM 2.5 to people most at risk and are from the economically weaker sections including but not limited to - street dwellers, all govt school children - including KV's, vegetables/fruit vendors, auto/taxi drivers, police officers, traffic police, sanitation workers, class IV & III govt officials etc. 

(4) Issue warnings when AQI crosses 100. These warnings should be included as notices in schools, colleges, hospitals, banks, govt. & private offices, frequent radio broadcasts and television telecasts.

(5)  When AQI crosses 150, shut down all historical places/sites, museums, planetarium, zoos/botanical gardens, all tourist destinations and all other public places.

(6) When AQI crosses 150, cancel all public events like marathon, walkathon, marriages, religious processions, food & music festivals and any other such events. 

(7) Declare Air Quality Environmental Health Emergency when AQI is more than 200 in that city or town. Treat it as a disaster. Detail plan to safeguard people.   

- under this close down all schools and colleges till AQI comes down below 200

- close down all government offices including banks.

- give orders to shut down all pvt offices (don't just issue advisory but ensure there is no travel for work). Stepping out will cause irreversible health damage. 

(8) Equip staff of emergency services like fire brigade, hospitals, ambulance, police personals to work under these hazardous conditions. Provide good quality gear. Regular health check ups.

(9) Stop air travel to the town or cities when AQI is more than 500.