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  Opinion   Columnists  06 Nov 2019  Toxic air, hungry kids: Divisive politics rules

Toxic air, hungry kids: Divisive politics rules

Patralekha Chatterjee focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at
Published : Nov 6, 2019, 1:10 am IST
Updated : Nov 6, 2019, 1:11 am IST

Malnutrition and air pollution are among the top health risks facing India.

People wear masks during a protest in New Delhi on Sunday, demanding the implementation of measures to reduce air pollution. (Photo: PTI)
 People wear masks during a protest in New Delhi on Sunday, demanding the implementation of measures to reduce air pollution. (Photo: PTI)

Delhi has recently had a burst of unseasonal rain – a big relief amid the dangerous air pollution, officially labelled a public health emergency. Perhaps, folks in other cities with blue skies will take a temporary break from trolling its residents. The real worry is that despite all the hand-wringing and non-stop coughing, Delhiites and residents of all the other cities in the country with dangerous levels of air pollution will settle down once again to a familiar angst-laced resignation.

The story is the same every year.

Malnutrition and air pollution are among the top health risks facing India. But in this country, sadly, both are at risk of being turned into sectarian, “us and them”, either/or, binary issues.

Listening to some of the public discourse around these issues, you would not think that they pose such a grave threat to India’s present and future.

Take air pollution, which has been a top headline grabber. India has some of the world’s most polluted cities but every Diwali, in recent years, there is a template response from a section of the populace who see bursting crackers as an essential part of being a good Hindu. This year was no different, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling about “green firecrackers” and mandated times for bursting them.

Many people violated the rules. Some were even triumphalist. The argument is that it is not only firecrackers that contribute to poisonous air. The problem with this argument is that no one ever said firecrackers alone were responsible for foul air.

Different factors at different times of the year cumulatively contribute to making Delhi and so many other Indian cities smokestacks, shaving off years of the lives of their residents. There is crop burning, currently a key reason for the noxious air in much of north India; there is vehicular emission, road dust, and other factors. Together they make life and the air we breathe hellish.

There has been endless discussion on what should be done but the discussions come to nothing because each contributory factor is pitted against the other, and in the politically polarised milieu in India today, this also means that the Central government and governments of the affected states are unable to brainstorm together meaningfully.

Polluted air has wide-ranging health impacts — an elevated risk for heart attacks and strokes, a higher risk of asthma, reduced foetal growth, stunted development of children’s lungs, and cognitive impairment which can impact one’s life chances.

Twenty-two of world's 30 most polluted cities are in India, according to a recent report by Greenpeace.

“In 2016, a World Health Organisation (WHO) study found that 14 of the 20 world’s most polluted cities belonged to India. Kanpur, in Uttar Pradesh, emerged as the city with the highest PM2.5 level, standing at 173 (17 times higher than the limit set for safety). It is estimated that in 2016, over nine lakh deaths were caused due to air pollution in India. Some other cities with high PM 2.5 levels include Faridabad, Varanasi, Gaya, Patna, Delhi, Lucknow and Agra. Delhi, as the capital of the country, too gained notorious reputation as a result of its severely poor air quality,” a report by Observer Research Foundation, a think tank, noted.

Delhi grabs the headlines but the poor air quality affects residents of the other cities just as much.

The other big issue which is critical to India’s future is child under-nutrition.

The latest Global Hunger Index ranked India at the 102nd position, trailing its South Asian neighbours. The index is a weighted average of stunting and wasting rate, and the index noted that the percentage of wasted children in India increased from 16.5 to 20.8 between 2008-12 and 2014-18.

Poor nutrition in early life is extremely damaging and leads to stunting and loss of IQ, which has consequences for the individual, the community and the country. A recent nutrition survey by the health and family welfare ministry has also found that 35 per cent of children under the age of five years in India are stunted, while 17 per cent are wasted and 33 per cent are underweight.

But guess what is the big controversy in Madhya Pradesh, which has a large number of undernourished children, especially in the tribal areas?

The Madhya Pradesh government’s plan to provide eggs to children in anganwadis is being slammed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), currently in the Opposition in the state.

Madhya Pradesh BJP leader Gopal Bhargava is in the news for his statement that making children eat eggs and meat can turn them into “cannibals later in life”. Mr Bhargava also says eating non-vegetarian food is against Indian culture, a statement that is both absurd and totally inaccurate.

“What else can you expect from this malnourished government? They are now feeding children eggs… force them to eat chicken, mutton. Indian culture doesn’t allow eating non-vegetarian food. If they begin to eat eggs and meat from childhood… they may become cannibals later,” Mr Bhargava told reporters.

Eggs are universally recognised as a source of cheap protein. How do eggs in the diet of children at anganwadis become a political issue? Once again, it is the same template — a serious issue being framed as a sectarian one, stoking divisive passions.

Unsurprisingly, those pitching politics against nutrition and rooting for only vegetarian food don’t actually go down and see the quality of vegetarian food that the poor children typically eat. More often than not, they don’t get the necessary nutrients.  The losers are the children.

The BJP state unit has described the MP government’s move as “interfering with the faith and religious beliefs of the people” and has sworn to oppose the proposal.

Under the previous BJP government, a similar scheme was proposed in 2015. But Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the then chief minister, junked it.  Which brings me to the moot point.

In which other country do polluted air and eggs become polarising issues with political parties and interest groups engaged in perennial finger-pointing at each other while the people continue to suffer?

It’s time to say “stop” and not let anyone get away with a diversionary narrative or with thwarting public health goals in the name of religion and culture and party politics. Our lives and livelihoods are at stake.

Tags: air pollution, malnutrition