More than 90% of world’s children breathe toxic air, report says, as India prepares for most polluted season

Around 93% of the world’s children under 15 years of age breathe air that is so polluted it puts their health and development at serious risk, accounting for 1.8 billion children, according to a report published by the World Health Organization ahead of its first global conference on air pollution and health in Geneva.

In 2016, 600,000 children were estimated to have died from acute lower respiratory infections caused by polluted air.
Air pollution is one of the leading threats to health in children under 5, accounting for almost one in 10 deaths among this age group, the report reveals.
“This is inexcusable. Every child should be able to breathe clean air so they can grow and fulfil their full potential” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a statement.
Air pollution also effects neurological development and cognitive ability and can trigger asthma and childhood cancer, the report says. Children exposed to excessive pollution may also be at greater risk of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease in adulthood.
“Air pollution is stunting our children’s brains, affecting their health in more ways than we suspected. But there are many straightforward ways to reduce emissions of dangerous pollutants,” said Dr. Maria Neira, director of the Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health at the WHO.
According to the WHO, children are more susceptible to pollution because they breathe more often, taking in more pollutants, and are closer to the ground, which is where some pollutants have higher concentrations.

India reaching peak season

In few places is pollution more pertinent than India’s most populous city, Delhi, where residents are bracing themselves for peak crop-burning season and the annual Hindu festival of Diwali, both of which add to a thick, toxic smog cast over the city.

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“Air pollution is one of the leading risk factors for the national burden of disease in India,” the report states, adding that researchers tracked more than 1,000 women in India throughout pregnancy and found a direct correlation between increased exposure to pollution and premature, underweight babies.
Air conditions are deteriorating quickly in the country’s capital; 29 monitoring stations in the city on Monday recorded “very poor” air quality while four stations recorded air quality as “severe.” Delhi is now the second most polluted major city in the world, according to air quality tracker AirVisual, second only to Lahore in Pakistan.
“Weather conditions are projected to become adverse from November 1,” warned the India Meteorological Department in a statement made last week. A task force led by the country’s Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has recommended a ban on all construction activities in the Delhi-NCR region for 10 days beginning November 1 to reduce dust as air quality is expected to deteriorate.
The average level of PM2.5 — particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameterthat can dangerously clog lungs — was 354 in the city on Monday. The WHO considers levels under 25 to be acceptable for humans to breathe regularly.

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Among low- and middle-income countries, 98% of all children under 5 are exposed to PM2.5 levels above WHO air quality guidelines, the report found. In comparison, in high-income countries, 52% of children under 5 are exposed to such levels.
The most recent air pollution data from WHO released in March gave India the distinction of having the world’s 10 most polluted cities.
Delhi’s air is so polluted that residents could live as much as nine years longer if Delhi met WHO standards, estimated the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago in a study published in 2017.
Last year, the Indian Medical Association declared a public health emergency because of alarming pollution levels and hospitals were clogged with wheezing men, women and children.

Why is it so bad in India?

As winter approaches, crop burning, firecrackers and a fall in temperatures fuel the annual deterioration in Delhi’s already-poor air quality.
Every year, farmers across fertile neighboring states set fire to their fields to clear them for the next season. Known as stubble burning, the practice means millions of tons of crop residue are set alight, releasing untold amounts of particulate matter into the environment.

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Stubble burning in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana contributed 32% of Delhi’s overall pollution on Saturday, according to a report by the country’s System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR).
The authorities have tried to reduce crop burning by imposing fines and providing subsidies for alternative machinery, but for many farmers there is still no affordable alternative.
The city is also preparing for Diwali, the annual festival of lights, which begins this year on November 7. Residents celebrate by lighting lamps and bursting firecrackers, which have caused a sharp spike in pollution levels in previous years.
During Diwali last year, Delhi’s air quality index reached 604 — more than 24 times higher than the level the WHO deems safe.
This year, authorities hope that a Supreme Court ban on the sale of most firecrackers will help prevent a plunge in air quality, though critics are skeptical about how effective the ban will be and how it will be enforced.

What is being done about it?

In response to falling air quality in India, the country’s Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) started implementation of a graded response action plan for the second year running, under which certain measures are taken as the air quality worsens.

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Measures introduced so far include a periodic mechanized sweeping of roads with heavy traffic, water sprinkling on unpaved roads and an increase in parking fees of up to four times. Rules are also enforced for dust control in construction activities and only trucks registered after 2005 are permitted entry into the city.
If the situation gets bad enough, authorities will consider banning trucks and construction in the city altogether.
Government bodies have warned Delhi residents to keep windows shut, wear masks and minimize use of private vehicles to curb the effects of increasing pollution in the city. They have also advised people to avoid outdoor activities in the coming days.

What needs to be done globally

The WHO says a range of actions are needed to curb the problem and protect the health of children worldwide, including the implementation of new policies to reduce pollution levels — such as further reducing dependence on fossil fuels and aiding the use of renewable energy, providing greater resources to heath professionals, improving waste management and locating schools and playgrounds away from busy roads and factories.
“WHO is supporting implementation of health-wise policy measures like accelerating the switch to clean cooking and heating fuels and technologies, promoting the use of cleaner transport, energy-efficient housing and urban planning,” said the WHO’s Neira. “We are preparing the ground for low-emission power generation, cleaner, safer industrial technologies and better municipal waste management.”



Almost all Indians will soon qualify for affirmative action in India

All but the richest will have access to job reservations

Affirmative action, as Americans confusingly call it, has been a defining feature of modern India. The constitution allows the government to make “special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens”. Since it came into force in 1950, “reservations” (quotas) have often been demanded and doled out. By setting aside government jobs and places at universities for members of communities that had been oppressed for hundreds if not thousands of years, the thinking ran, the country would soon rid itself of the iniquities of caste, and with it the need for reservations.

Instead, Indians have been mired in a zero-sum competition for official favour ever since. The first beneficiaries were “scheduled castes and tribes”, in particular untouchables (now known as Dalits)—those at the bottom of the social order. Inevitably, the considerably less disadvantaged “other backward classes” (obcs) soon began to clamour for quotas of their own. Political parties sprang up to demand new or bigger reservations for different castes. It was only in 1992 that the Supreme Court appeared to put a stop to the scramble by ruling that no more than 50% of jobs or university spaces could be reserved under caste-based quotas. But on January 7th, with general elections due in just three months, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (bjp) came up with a new way to expand reservations: to set aside a further 10% of jobs and university places for relatively impoverished Indians, of whatever caste or religion. A motion to change the constitution to that end cleared both houses of parliament in just two days, a record, with almost no dissent.

The scheme’s details remain hazy, but reports suggest that any family earning less than 800,000 rupees ($11,375) a year would be eligible. That is a generous sum in a country where the average income per person was $1,976 in 2017. Indeed, 800,000 rupees is the level of income that defines the “creamy layer”—families wealthy enough that the courts have barred them from any sort of reservation, whatever their caste or tribe. All but the richest, in other words, will now be eligible for a reservation.

The bjp used to oppose excessive reservations, since it derived much of its support from higher castes who felt that their opportunities were being diminished by their lower-caste neighbours, some of whom were no needier than they were. In 2006 much of India erupted into protests against reservations. More recently, instead of calling for the abolition or reduction of reservations, relatively prosperous castes have agitated for inclusion in the quotas. The bjp’s new policy looks like a sop to such important “vote banks” as the Patidars of Gujarat or the Rajputs of Rajasthan, who are too well-to-do, by and large, to be considered backward, but poor enough to resent that.

These groups are also numerous enough to be central to the efforts of Narendra Modi, the prime minister, to win a second term. And they are agitated about lack of opportunity. The Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy, a think-tank in Mumbai, reckons that the number of people in work fell during the past fiscal year, even as the working-age population swelled.

To be fair, the bjp is not alone in its bribery. The state of Tamil Nadu reserves fully 69% of university places and government jobs for disadvantaged castes—an apparent breach of the Supreme Court’s ruling that has been the subject of long litigation. Other states have created reservations for women, the disabled, religious minorities, former soldiers and so on. Congress, the main opposition party, proposed something similar to the new scheme years ago. The leader of another opposition party says that now that the 50% ceiling has been breached, the reservation devoted to obcs, for whom his party claims to speak, should be doubled to 54%, in proportion with their share of the population.

The irony is that quotas will not help much. In November the national railways received 19m applications for 63,000 lowly posts. That meant plenty of disappointment to be shared among every caste.


How one Indian city cracked the problem of urban spread

A hundred-year-old colonial law comes in handy

Afew miles west of Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujarat, a smiling patriarch named Shivaji still farms the land around the small redbrick home where he was born. But the city is creeping towards him. Mr Shivaji has already sold about a quarter of his land to a speculator (he hid the money in a hole before India suddenly cancelled most banknotes two years ago, forcing him to come up with a better plan). Slicing through his farm is a wide, straight strip of grass on which the municipal government will eventually build a road. Under it, a sewer has already been installed.

Ahmedabad, which contains 6m people, is growing by about 2% a year, both in population and in size. In that sense, it is a typical Indian city. But whereas most Indian cities—and indeed most of them in the emerging world—sprawl haphazardly, Ahmedabad is spreading in an orderly way. Many farms close to the metropolis, like Mr Shivaji’s, already contain the ghostly outline of a rectilinear road grid. This is gradually being filled with homes, offices and parks (see picture, which shows part of Ahmedabad’s urban fringe and one edge of Lucknow, a city in Uttar Pradesh). In some ways Ahmedabad is more like 19th-century Barcelona or New York than a modern Indian city. It is also a model for the future.

It is hardly surprising that most Indian cities are so messy, says Bimal Patel, an architect and planner who is president of ceptUniversity in Ahmedabad. When European and American cities were swelling quickly, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were surrounded by large farms that could be turned into fully-formed suburbs. By contrast, most Indian farms are tiny. A builder who buys a plot of land on the outskirts of an Indian city usually has just enough space to squeeze in a few homes. He will throw them up without sparing a thought for where any major roads or other infrastructure might go. Slum developments do not even have underground sewers.

Ahmedabad does things differently. Two municipal authorities—one for the central city, the other covering a much larger area around Ahmedabad—identify large blocks of land to develop. On the fringes of the city, they usually claim about two-fifths of the land area for roads, schools, parks, social housing and so on. Rather than claiming land only from farmers who happen to be in the path of roads, though, the authorities take the same proportion from everyone in the block.

Then, using a century-old town-planning law introduced by the British former rulers, Ahmedabad’s officials reorganise all land holdings in the block so that they align with the new road grid. Field boundaries that once curved and twisted become straight. The authorities pay farmers for the land that they seize, and charge them for infrastructure improvements. Usually, the land jumps so much in value that everybody comes out well ahead.

This process can be fraught, and is not entirely clean. Pankaj Patel, the man who bought land from Mr Shivaji, lists some of the many things that go wrong. To begin with, he says, people whom he calls “land grabbers” hear that an area is slated for development and try to snaffle as much as they can—sometimes by fibbing to the farmers by telling them that the government will seize their land and give them almost nothing. Everybody complains that their reorganised land parcels are less well situated than their neighbours’. Some bribe officials to give them a better deal. Rich, powerful people who own country estates in the targeted districts find various ways to gum up the works.

Not one of these problems is fatal, however. Whereas attempts to seize land under eminent-domain laws are frequently paralysed by protests, the town-planning schemes trundle along. Crucially, the development authorities can ban building along the paths of roads even while arguments rage over the new land parcels. The town-planning schemes have proved flexible. To acquire land for a 76km ring road, Ahmedabad created 47 schemes and built the road in just four years.

The result is a tidy city, which can become much larger before it begins to suffer from the usual diseconomies of scale. Usually, the fringes of developing-world cities are messier than the middles. But the Atlas of Urban Expansion, a project based in New York University, estimates that roads built in Ahmedabad after 2000 are 8.5m wide, on average, compared with 7.2m for roads built earlier. Roads also take up more of the land area in the newly developed suburbs. Because wide roads can carry more cars and buses, future suburbanites in Ahmedabad ought to be spared the awful traffic jams that frustrate large Indian cities such as Delhi and Mumbai.

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The same system works elsewhere in Gujarat. The city of Bhuj, which was devastated by an earthquake in 2001, has been rebuilt using town-planning schemes. Town planning is being revived in the neighbouring state of Maharashtra (Gujarat and Maharashtra both used to belong to a huge state known as Bombay). Other states are interested, too. jica, the Japanese aid agency, has tried to spread knowledge of town planning to other Asian countries, including Thailand.

Mr Patel of cept University says he is sometimes told that the technique would work less well outside his state. Gujaratis have a reputation for being industrious and pragmatic; perhaps that explains why farmers are willing to submit to the shrinkage and reorganisation of the lands they used to cherish. Nonsense, he says. They agree to it because it has repeatedly been shown to work for people like them. Planning laws have made Gujaratis rational, not the other way around.