28-year-old diagnosed cancer due to pollution: Industrialization marking the beginning of the end?

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By Abhishek Mundhra*

The afternoon of the 31st of July, 2019, the news flashed of a 28-year old woman being diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. The headline did not baffle me, the alleged cause did. The said woman belongs to a non-smoking family residing in Ghazipur. Chest surgeon Dr. Arvind Kumar at the Ganga Ram Hospital claims the toxic and polluted air of New Delhi to be the cause of misery. To quote his words, “Smoke from five cigarettes to 20 cigarettes is present in Delhi’s air. You cannot be a non-smoker if you live in Delhi”.

The degrading state of the life surviving natural resources, global warming and climate change is driven by fast-paced industrialization coupled with population explosion is expected to yield many more such headlines.

Global Warming and Climate Change – Why should we worry?

The recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states disastrous consequences especially in countries with a vulnerable population such as India by means shortage of food and water supplies, loss of health and economic conditions. The report is of primary importance to India as it is regarded to face a greater hit in terms of the cost to undo the impact. The report states that to meet the targets as per the new international agreement – Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC), India might have to spend over 1 Trillion Dollars.

The impacts of the climatic changes are often said to be irreversible. The above-mentioned report though ends on a silver lining that it is still not too late to restrain the damage, however, the ability to recoup itself back to normalcy would be significantly difficult for South-Asian nations specifically India.

India’s current state of affairs – Air, Water and Soil

  1. The deplorable state of air quality

The WHO (World Health Organization) released the global air pollution database early in May 2019. As per the said report, more than 90% of people in the world are vulnerable to air not fit for breathing. Not so surprisingly, fourteen out of the top fifteen most polluted cities in the world are from India, Kanpur being on the top while Delhi taking the sixth spot.

data
The data represents annual average micrograms per cubic meter of PM 2.5

As per the reports of the NASA Socioeconomic data and applications center, India as a country stands close to 4X times the acceptable safe limit set by WHO.

  1. Chennai’s water crisis – the new normal

Chennai has been facing an acute shortage of water lately with people paying over a hundred rupees for a litre of drinking water. Drying water bodies and expanding construction being the slow poison for the city. Chennai is not alone in this fight; identical threats are lurking on several other Indian states.

Verisk Maplecroft, an analytics firm based out of UK formulated the Water Stress Index which classified geographies as per the risk of water shortage into Extreme Risk, High Risk, Medium Risk and Low Risk. While India ranked 46th (High Risk) in this list, eleven out of India’s twenty largest cities were classified under the “Extreme Risk” category (Chennai being on the higher end). The list includes Agra, Jaipur, Chennai, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Lucknow, Indore, Bengaluru, Nasik, Hyderabad and Kanpur. Bengaluru, the Silicon Valley of India is also under severe threat due to rapid growth in population and industrialization and was alleged to be the next Cape Town.

  1. Silencing the rustle of the trees

Air, water and the forest cover cannot be dealt with in isolation. The cause and effects are intertwined together. As per the works of the World Research Institute (WRI), the loss of forest cover in India between the period 2001 to 2018 is over 1.6 million hectares. The states contributing the most to it includes Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura.

The impact of this is to read as a catalyst to the acute state of the air and water resources and posits a significant threat to the sustainability of resources for the coming generations.

Is India ready to fight the battle?

Earlier this year, we saw young students from various schools in India participate in the Youth Climate Strike demanding the government to take responsibility for climate change. As part of the Transformation Social Movements course offered at IIM-Ahmedabad, we saw a young boy coming over to the campus, deliberating his views on global warming as a participant of the movement.

The current participation of the central and the state government on these pressing concerns are far from adequate. The policy-making allows an international agreement to be enforceable only after being translated into domestic law. India is on the brink of disaster and must make amends to establish a sustainable model not obstructing growth which also advocating environmental development.

Absence of political attention – Paradox of success metrics

Even though the existing conditions are alarming, symptoms surprising, seldom do we see climatic change being part of any political agenda. The question we should ask ourselves is why such a widespread phenomenon impacting millions of people is not discussed at all.

The impact of any term is often being measured the growth rate the country has achieved, the control on inflation and unemployment, currency appreciation which is often a result of foreign trades, etc. The real-life sustenance issues often take a back seat. Strong measures against the depleting environment might just put a check on the unrestrained quest for growth and growing industrialization. This, in turn, might put the politicians on the wrong foot with the industrialists and business tycoons. Thus, there always lies a conflict which prevents these conservative issues to form part of the core agenda.

The paradox needs to be dealt with an overarching sense of responsibility not only for the growth of modern society but also for the healthy sustenance of the future.

The Way Forward

The greatest challenge that lies ahead of a developing nation such as India is rising population, growing urbanization and accelerated usage of energy resources, all of this combined, pushes climatic changes faster than the speed with which we are ready to combat them. While there isn’t a ready-to-execute solution for such a mass scale problem, the push needs to be from all the levels:

  1. Policy level push – Policy level consistency and thought coherence forms the backbone for any structural change. The Paris Agreement was brought in to tackle the issue of climate change with a bottom-up approach. However, the execution lacked consistency in the submissions from individual member countries.
  2. Executional Independence – A National Green Tribunal is formed to address environmental issues under the Act. However, the tribunal faces several challenges with respect to infrastructure and support from the center. The tribunal is not provided with Suo-moto powers which limits the ambit of operations of the tribunal. Greater autonomy would empower it to address the growing concern.
  3. Continuum: Education – Long term sustenance to a change requires knowledge and behavioral adaptation. The role of education has often been understated. This not only can be used to instill the required expertise to help bring about the change but also itself become ecologically green and set an example to be carbon neutral – as the only way ahead.

*Indian Institute of Management- Ahmedabad, PGP 2018-20

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