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Holding our breath in India’s cities

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India's cities and PM2.5 - the official response has been to reject the WHO findings

India’s cities and PM2.5 – the official response has been to reject the WHO findings

The findings by the World Health Organisation on the quality of air in India’s cities are the strongest signal yet to our government (old and new, for the results of the 2014 general election will become known on 16 May) that economic ‘growth’ is a weapon that kills citizens through respiratory tract diseases and infections.

Amongst the 124 Indian cities in the new WHO database on urban air quality worldwide, one city only is at the WHO guideline for PM2.5 and one city only is just above the guidelines for PM10. As a bloc, the quality of air in India’s cities are at alarmingly high levels above the guidelines, above Asian averages (poor as they are, and even considering China’s recklessly poor record) and above world averages.

This is not a singular matter. Already, the WHO has warned that India has a high environmental disease burden, with a significant number of deaths annually associated with environmental risk factors. The Global Burden of Disease for 2010 ranked ambient air pollution as the fifth largest killer in India, three places behind household air pollution. Taken cumulatively, household and ambient air pollution constitute the single greatest risk factor that cause ill health -leading to preventable deaths – in India.

The WHO database contains results of ambient (outdoor) air pollution monitoring. Air quality is represented by ‘annual mean concentration’ (a yearly average) of fine particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5, which means particles smaller than 10 or 2.5 microns). The WHO guideline values are: for PM2.5 – 10 micrograms/m3 annual mean; for PM10 – 20 micrograms/m3 annual mean. The two charts show just how dangerously above the WHO guidelines the air quality of our cities are.

India's cities and PM10 - it is the latest amongst many signs that India's GDP growth fever is a killer.

India’s cities and PM10 – it is the latest amongst many signs that India’s GDP growth fever is a killer.

Half of India’s urban population lives in cities where particulate pollution levels exceed the standards considered safe. A third of this population breathes air having critical levels of particulate pollution, which is considered to be extremely harmful. “We are also running out of ‘clean’ places. Small and big cities are now joined in the pain of pollution,” commented Down To Earth, the environment magazine.

Typically, the official Indian response was to question the WHO findings (these were carried out in the same way in 91 countries, and we don’t hear the other 90 complaining) and to reject them. The reason is easy to spot. Global offender Number One for air pollution amongst world cities is New Delhi, a city that has been pampered as the showcase for what the Congress government myopically calls “the India growth story”.

Hence government scientists are reported to have quickly said that WHO overestimated air pollution levels in New Delhi. “Delhi is not the dirtiest… certainly it is not that dangerous as projected,” said A B Akolkar, a member secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board.

The same recidivist line was parroted by Gufran Beig, chief project scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (which otherwise does good work on the monsoon and on climate change). He is reported as having said that New Delhi’s air quality was better than Beijing’s, and that pollution levels in winter are relatively higher in New Delhi because of extreme weather events. Beig said: “The value which has been given in this (WHO) report is overestimating (pollution levels) for Delhi … the reality is that the yearly average is around 110 (micrograms).”

The WHO database has captured measurements from monitoring stations located in urban background, residential, commercial and mixed areas. The world’s average PM10 levels by region range from 26 to 208 micrograms/m3, with a world average of 71 micrograms/m3.

PM affects more people than any other pollutant. The major components of PM are sulfate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon, mineral dust and water. It consists of a complex mixture of solid and liquid particles of organic and inorganic substances suspended in the air. The most health-damaging particles are those with a diameter of 10 microns or less, which can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs. Chronic exposure to particles contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as of lung cancer.

Central and state governments show no inclination to join the obvious dots. These are, that with more fuels being burned to satisfy the electricity and transport needs of a middle class now addicted to irresponsible consumption, the ‘India growth story’ is what we are choking to death on.

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Floating candy, micro loans and Chinese tomatoes

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One week of food for the Casales family in Mexico (Menzel and D'Aluisio, 2005)

One week of food for the Casales family in Mexico (Menzel and D'Aluisio, 2005)

This eclectic selection of reports does have one common theme. And that is a measure of desperation. The global triple crisis – that of finance and credit, of climate change, and of food and hunger – has pushed the poor to desperation, but it has also pushed companies and institutions to desperation. Desperate measures is what links the stories of a floating supermarket in Brazil, normally safe microloans going bad, fertiliser overuse in north India and Chinese tomatoes in Italy.

1. Nestlé’s ‘floating supermarket’ makes its voyages under Amazon skies. The ‘Terra Grande’ vessel is an investment by the Swiss food group designed to reach isolated riverside communities in the Amazon region. The vessel is designed to enhance Nestle’s reach among the lower income consumers that make up a core part of its market. The company has been in Brazil for 89 years and products like its powdered milk are staples among Brazil’s poorer consumers. As the economy continues to grow quickly, Nestlé is hoping that rising incomes among the poor will bring its higher priced goods within their reach, too.

2. Microfinance markets in Nicaragua, Morocco and Pakistan have seen default levels climb to more than 10 percent, the threshold that marks a “serious repayment crisis,” according to a February report from Washington, D.C.-based policy and research firm Consultative Group to Assist the Poor. Delinquencies in Bosnia and Herzegovina stayed below that level only because of “aggressive loan write-offs,” the report said. While there has been no evidence of a “widespread repayment crisis” in India, “a number of industry analysts have highlighted industry vulnerabilities,” the report said.

Here is a slice of Bloomberg’s reportage on the problem in India: “Savita Ramesh Rathore stood at the door to her dimly lit workshop in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, filled floor-to-ceiling with bundles of old clothes, and tallied up the cost of her son’s wedding last year. ‘Jewels, clothes, food, the town hall,’ said Rathore, 50, who makes towels from discarded clothes. She borrowed 30,000 rupees ($645) from moneylenders charging 60 percent interest and took additional loans from friends to pay for the wedding. Three months ago, she got a 10,000 rupee loan from urban lender Hindusthan Microfinance Pvt. to repay some of that debt.”

One week of food for the Ayme family in Ecuador (Menzel and D'Aluisio, 2005)

One week of food for the Ayme family in Ecuador (Menzel and D'Aluisio, 2005)

3. A new study by Greenpeace Research Laboratories shows that agriculture in Punjab is on the brink of an ecological catastrophe, the result of the overuse of highly-subsidised synthetic nitrogen fertilisers by farmers striving to step up their output. Dr Reyes Tirado, a scientist from the University of Exeter, sampled wells in 50 villages in the areas of Muktsar, Bhatinda and Ludhiana, and found that 20 per cent had nitrate levels above the World Health Organisation recommended safety limit of 50 mg per litre.

Farmers are aggressively using the nitrate fertilisers with the aim of boosting their annual yield. But scientists warn that this overuse is gradually exhausting the soil, which will eventually leave it unfit for food production. PepsiCo, the cola company which also makes potato chips, sources potatoes from farms in Ludhiana, and lost no time in claiming fatuously that it encourages its agricultural suppliers to use less nitrogen-based fertilisers.

4. Italy’s agriculture minister declared “We will defend the Italian tomato” in response to reports by Coldiretti, an agricultural association, that Italian imports of Chinese tomatoes had soared by over 170 per cent in the past year and now made up 10 per cent of the country’s processed tomato market. Chinese tomatoes are being imported into Italy for processing into paste and then re-exported with an Italian label to countries like Ghana which buys about 28,000 tonnes from Italy each year. Chinese exports of food and drink to the EU have doubled over the past decade, reaching 3.2bn euros in 2009.