People living on pavements in danger

Nine out of 10 of the world’s most polluted cities are in India, a World Health Organisation (WHO) 2018 study has said, and the community facing the biggest risk includes pavement dwellers in Delhi and other cities.

To deal with the problem the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi (IIT-D) and the University of Birmingham, UK, are tying up to help tackle health, social and economic problems associated with air pollution in Delhi and other regions. They have called for air quality metrics to be incorporated into several of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, most notably SDG3 – Good Health and Well-being.

Issuing a warning at an ASAAP India (A Systems Approach to Air Pollution India) workshop in Delhi, convened by Dr William Avis and Prof Francis Pope from the University of Birmingham and Prof Mukesh Khare from IIT-Delhi, delegates proposed that air pollution be treated as a disaster. It was no less than a natural event such as an earthquake and forest fire. Access to clean air was a basic human right, they said.

A special scoping study to highlight the health threat to an estimated 46,000 or more people living and working on the streets of Delhi was also launched on the occasion. It focuses on the city’s pavement dwellers, the thousands exposed to dangerous pollution levels because of constant exposure to dangerous levels of air pollution.

Pavement dwellers at several locations studied by a research team led by Dr William Avis with Monika Walia and Dr Bidhu Mahapatra from the Population Council – India found they were frequently exposed to severe or hazardous levels of particulate matter (PM) air pollution which could lead to conditions such as acute or chronic lung disease – one of the most common causes of death among this group of citizens.

Delegates from India, Africa, Asia, Europe and the US explored how cities such as Delhi could tackle air pollution. It was led by IIT Delhi (IITD), All India Disaster Mitigation Institute (AIDMI), Population Council – India, and Urban Management Centre (UMC), and University of Birmingham experts.

“Air pollution kills millions and costs the world economy billions – tackling the problem is not just a technological issue, but a social-economic and social-political challenge that requires a new approach. Many conference delegates were surprised there is no SDG specific to clean air, but there is plenty of scope to include clean air action many of the SDGs,” said Prof Pope.

Prof Khare stressed on the need to find solutions to the global threat posed by air pollution. “It is more than just a health risk; it slows our countries’ development, diminishes the quality of life and reduces incomes. Air quality need not have its own UN Sustainable Development Goal, but is extremely important for SDG3 – ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all. Placing air quality metrics in relevant SDGs could help to improve life for millions of people,” he said

Also present on the occasion, Jan Thompson, the British deputy high commissioner to India, mentioned the new Clean Air strategy launched in the UK. “The problem is particularly acute in India and Delhi because of the pace of development and the specific meteorological and geographical conditions, she said.

A multi-pronged effort was needed to understand the sources and processes causing this pollution.’We are working with Indian partners on joint research that we hope will contribute to better understanding the processes that determine air quality over Delhi, providing new and key insights into pollutant sources, emissions, transport mechanisms, and health impacts in order to develop better informed mitigation options,” she said.

The study unveiled at the workshop, titled Vulnerability Scoping Study: Air Pollution Exposure of Pavement Dwellers in Delhi, recommended a range of actions to improve the situation facing the city’s pavement dwellers including:

  • Wider support at all government levels for implementing the National Clean Air Programme;
  • Targeted support from civil society groups for pavement dwellers to help tackle the causes of homelessness; and
  • Information to help pavement dwellers reduce exposure to air pollution.


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