Thursday, Jan 07, 2021 07:45 [IST]

Last Update: Thursday, Jan 07, 2021 02:21 [IST]

Pollution Tracking in Resurgent Covid-19 Era

Dr. AALOK SHRIVASTAVA

To begin from beginning, sky was so azure blue and clear during the lockdown phase and soon after (March to June) that not only one could 'stand and stare' but also breathe properly, perhaps after a long time. Away from toxics, away from biotic interventions, greed and never ending needs. But such a scenario probably was possible due to mandatory do's and don’ts with an element of self-impulse. All said and done, it was a welcome wind of change and led to substantial reduction in thousands, if not lakhs of positive Corona cases and casualties as stated by the Health Minister in Parliament.
While the human beings stopped working (no unfair means and deals at the cost of inconvenience to common man) and 'unnecessarily interacting', numerous birds and animals were also put to suffering and their miseries cannot possibly be narrated. One has seen and felt their pulse closely for seven months, based on feeding & observation of 56 of them (Kites, Peacocks, Monkeys, Cows, Parrots, Piegons, Sparrows, Crows, Mynahs, Squirrels etc) in an upscale habitat of the capital. It was perhaps first exposure to their 'social life'. Very educative and enlightening indeed, so much so, that imminent departure during the 'unlocking or relaxation’ in mid-July, left a lasting impression on this writer.
In majority of 'work stations' it was forced exodus of migrant and daily wage workers, something which only gave short-lived succour’s a consequence, unemployment shot up rapidly while economy slowed down considerably and many in minority community were suspected. Confirmed cases of Covid spiked and measures adopted proved haywire for quite some time. In one State, the 'curve' was claimed to have got flattened so soon that the state in question still 'leads 'in terms of 24 hour cases, while in an extremely impossible and highly dense & unhygienic setting, such as, Dharavi, success to a large extent was recorded, despite apparent miscommunication between the two Governments.
Now that we have 81,358,699 cases globally leading to 1,776,070 deaths AND 10.245 million cases (unfortunate quantum jump in Sikkim from 5406 cases on 19th December to 5845 cases on 28th December, leading to 126 deaths) resulting into 1.48 lakh deaths in India, we should not show any complacency. Our positivity, recovery and CFR (low death rate) being tolerable so far should not deviate or misguide us, in view of the fact that we still contribute to a quarter of the global cases.
Continued Threat from Air Pollution
While we await the outcome of the 'effect period' of 21 days of the vaccines being given/readied by Pfizer, Moderna, Sputnik or even Oxford-AstraZeneca and also possibly get an answer regarding their' claimed 'control(?) over the new strain, it may be in fitness of things to assess the close relationship or link between three major pollutions of air, water and noise vis a vis instance as also surge in Covid-19 cases. Also, it may be stated that in a setting of pollution or reduced pollution, for want of a vaccine, common man would be stuck in the lifestyles dominated by masks and social distancing protocols for a long time.
Turning to air pollution in combination with water pollution, these cannot be considered to be the root causes of the never ending animal virus disease but mainly the former acts as a lethal and potential perpetrator & facilitator. Not only it hits and aggravates, it may leave an impact of renewal of activity during the successive period.
In extreme winter, low wind speed (below 5 kmph) with rapid fall in temperature leads to dense fog in major parts of North India which, in turn increases moisture level. Resultantly, dispersion of pollutants slows down leading to choking effect on all living beings.
According to an authentic report pollution  kills 7 million people globally and 1.7 millions lost lives in India in 2019 alone mainly due to rise in lung & heart, stroke, diabetes and neo-natal diseases. Browsing through Internet reveals that industrial and urban development activities do contribute to the mess, however, people in general also defy the prescribed norms and mandates which leads to reduction of trust between public and Government. At times, it is also misinformation versus dis information.
Well established link
Association or link between air pollution and higher Covid fatality may be well established and it refuses to go. One may focus attention for it on more than one hundred cities in China 66 regions in Italy and many parts of England in the past. Recently one study has revealed that 78 % of the people having health complications, such as, heart attacks, Diabetes, Covid, High BP etc.in Spain, France and Germany belonged to most polluted segments. It is not only getting affected once or twice but it has been proved that breathing polluted air for long can increase fatality to the extent of 10 to 12 %. More shocking are the findings of three studies conducted between September and November 2020 in USA which have established 9 to 11% enhancement in Covid cases owing to air pollution. The issue gets compounded if people wilfully violate the norms of mask and social distancing.
A noted expert, Dr. Maria Neira quoted in 'Science in 5 Program' has revealed that bad air going to lungs increases  the risk of chronic respiratory diseases, such as, Lung Cancer, Asthma, Pneumonia etc and that small particles can also reach blood streams leading to adverse effect on cardio vascular systems. Thus even when people experience fatigue, natural ventilation is not possible in the crowded public places and slum settings. Any kind of burning worsens the situation.
Delhi residents begin breathing toxic air from October. If one looks at comparisons in the situation of current year vis a vis earlier period, as per CPCB, AQI figures in first two weeks of October this year had become worse than the corresponding period in 2018 and 2019 despite reduction in stubble burning instances. Even on Diwali day and a day after,AQI was more than 900 despite ban on normal crackers by the NGT.
To attain Covid Retreat, there is an urgent need to ramp up tests in Kerala, Maharashtra, West Bengal, states having high % of active cases. Punjab, at same time cannot be ignored owing to its highest CFR and Mumbai, due to its highest fatality rate of 64% above the age of 60.
In North India in general and NCR in particular, one is experiencing worsening of the annual pollution phenomenon. The first round of  severe air pollution in the NCR caused by the stubble burning in neighbouring three states(rightly flagged by agitating farmers)appeared to have got abated by the last week of November. But the Air Quality Index (AQI) which was tolerable. Earlier is getting deteriorated. It had been showing an upward trend in the third week of December (15th to 25th) and same was recorded between 230 and 290 between 14th and 19th December (early cold spell period),meaning thereby, it moved from the Poor (201 to 300) to Very Poor(301 to 400) category. By 21st  December, the NCR had the AQI of 332 which became Severe (401 to 500)i.e.,418 on 22nd  December with minor or major aberrations in Ghaziabad, NOIDA and Gurugram. It reached the figure of 423 on 24th December for Delhi and 437 and 441 respectively in NOIDA area on 22nd and 24th December.
It is rather unfortunate to note that the average Air Quality Index (AQI ) for NCR during the first week/fortnight of November '20 was a matter of concern but same, as clearly spelt out, was primarily due to stubble burning or burning of the agricultural residue in the adjoining states. Other two reasons, namely, unfavourable meteorological condition of the capital and local sources of auto mobile pollution did also matter but their impact was of lesser significance.
According to a fresh weather forecast, another round of cold wave was expected in the last week of December which could have added to the crisis both of agriculturists as also urban dwellers. As usual, atmospheric pollution due to the first reason appears to have got 'postponed'  without any viable solution. The tirade against low temperature and slow wind speed(below 5 kmph),however, resulting into non-breaking or non-disappearance of the pollutants in atmosphere will continue to pose threats, leading to some other respiratory diseases.
It may be also worthwhile to mention that attempt at 'scientific solution'  to the stubble burning challenge by the NCT Government  did not go beyond a few initial steps. Ironically, a large amount of advertisement budget was unnecessarily spent on the inconclusive exercise. It merely raised the hopes of farmers, to belie their expectations, later. Nothing else.
Minor steps, namely, non-operation of stone crushers, ban on illegal  scrap waste burning etc may, however, continue to be in force till first week of January. Side by side, daily sprinkling of water on the main roads is only expected to provide a lip service.
In view of the fact that the NCR does not have a weather of its 'own’, frequent or sudden changes do happen, giving an impression that there is contradiction between the process of climate change and the winds blowing into the region from H. and Uttarakhand.
Water Pollution
Adding insult to injury is the never to disappear phenomenon of water and noise pollution. The former arose due to faulty planning and wrong demographic assessments which was bereft of any cushion for future environmental threats. It is learnt to have become alarming in the trans Yamuna belt since the last decade of 20th Century. Without focussing their required attention on exploring a solution, to cater to millions of people, the successive governments, be it NCT or UP resorted to short time solutions, fabricated by the ambitious and amiable builders. Such a measure never addressed either the purity or portability aspects of water either for household/ plant purposes or for drinking as such. So the 'unfit' water has to be supplemented by 20 litre bottled water on payment.
No wonder, water borne diseases may be competing with the animal virus in a situation when hefty maintenance charges have to be paid by the allotties, literally through their nose, due to whims and fancies of the builders. Imagine the demand in 165 sectors & 65 villages in NOIDA alone!
By and large, one can rely on RO filtered water, there is no safety standard with regard to general/ bulk water supply. I have myself found traces of pollution and fungi in the bottle stored water kept tightly for a week. Not only it is injurious for bathing and cleaning of hair but it has adverse impact on brushing of tooth or may be on potted plants.
 In this way, both air and water pollution add to the overall burden of the public authority which is presently pre-preoccupied with management of Covid-19.
The third major pollution threat that of noise, is not least important but it may have to be dealt with separately.
FIt can be said that tremendous rise in standard of living and various electronic innovations leading to change in commuting habits may have to be blamed despite provision of eco-friendly public transport of more than one variety. An authority can make available the latest infra structure or improve what is durable but attitude change will continue to be prerogative of an individual.
People have to make the difference through their responsible & good moral behaviour. Urge for easy & quick money and positions through prevalent fake certificates in the region MAY HAVE TO GO.
Last but not the least, even for declaration of identity and  a negative Covid case, such papers are easily available on payment of paltry sums.
(The writer is former Chief Secretary, Government of Sikkim)

Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi