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DEATH IN THE AIR

Six-hundred and twenty-seven thousand dead and almost eighteen million years of healthy life lost. This sounds like the description of a fantastical holocaust, but is actually something rather more mundane. This was, simply, the cost of air pollution in India during 2010, as estimated by an international research effort to analyse disease burden. Obviously, Indians are being slowly, and often invisibly, killed by a phenomenon that they normally should be glad about: growth, especially industrial development. And, to look more closely at the latest findings of the Centre for Science and Environment, seven towns (including Calcutta) in Bengal are among the nine in India that have both forms of air pollution particulate matter as well as nitrogen dioxide at lethal levels. Moreover, air pollution (including household pollution) is one of the leading causes of death in India. Delhi is not at all exempt from this alarming scenario. But what emerges most significantly from this survey is that pollution control has to be taken up concertedly in the smaller towns and villages, for these are also beginning to be critically affected by both kinds of pollutant. In Bengal, for instance, towns like Asansol, Durgapur and Raniganj have to sit up to this crisis; environmental awareness and action urgently have to become part of everyday consciousness and reflexes, rather than being relegated to fashionably metropolitan activism and education. The everyday lives of the underprivileged as well as the greed of the very rich equally have to be made part of such awareness and action.

Ordinary citizens as well as the more powerful people who represent them in global environmental fora will have to get out of the mindset that tends to ignore longer term, or less obviously visible, signs of crisis in favour of what can be seen or enjoyed immediately. They should also give up the small-fry mentality and take responsibility, as developed nations are expected to, for the consequences of their own actions. At a more micro level, bureaucratic or administrative corruption and civic apathy alike have to give way to more proactive forms of scruple. Everybody schoolchildren, home-makers, chief ministers, and drivers and owners of buses and taxis, to name just a few kinds of people has to treat air pollution as no less than a matter of life and death.