Should we pay an exorbitant price for progress? When we race ahead on the road to material prosperity, are we not losing something in the bargain? Does man have the right to destroy the pure environment God has given him? Can he go scot-free after undermining the ecosystem that supports him? People the world over, including India, are learning the x lard way to find answers to these thought-provoking questions. Our very survival is in danger if we seek to pollute the very world we are living in. Nature’s retribution could be all on a sudden as we saw in the case of the infamous 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy or the slow death caused by pollution of air and water, pollution of land by the accumulation of solid wastes and the noise pollution.

The magnitude of the Bhopal gas tragedy is often forgotten: we fail to remember that this one tragedy killed more people than all the industrial accidents, taken together, worldwide in the 20th century. But the scars of the greatest industrial pollution in history still remain to haunt thousands of sufferers today. Many of the survivors not only battle psychiatric problems, but a wide range of physical disorders; the gases destroyed lung tissue—the single biggest reason for death—people could not breathe any longer. Physical disability impaired their capacity to work and many suffered eye damage. Next year we will be observing the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy, but the victims are running from pillar to post for justice. The Union Carbide and those responsible for the tragedy are still at large.

Those living in the big cities of Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Kanpur and the like might have to take a holiday in distant countryside to feel what unpolluted air is all about. The cities have become too crowded with fumes from proliferating automobiles and mushrooming factories and accumulating garbage dumps. And most of the rivers have become sewers. The drainage mains laid long ago have started overflowing with sewage and sullage entering residential areas. And the noise pollution gets on your nerves. In such an environment, health would be the worst casualty.

Things are no better in the villages. Solid waste is allowed to accumulate and fester for months together and refuse of all kinds including human excreta helps flies mosquitoes and rodents as also other disease agents to thrive, passing on illnesses to man. Millions of villagers are exposed to unsafe drinking water, giving rise to gastrointestinal disorders that are the most important causes of illness and death among infants. Every year, millions of people are stricken by mosquito and other insect-borne diseases such as malaria, yellow fever and ‘brain fevers- 1 caused by many different viruses. In addition, trachoma (a cause of widespread loss of vision), worms and other parasites, fostered by insanitary conditions, affect an entire village, reducing the work capacity of able-bodied citizens and lowering their resistance to other diseases.

People in the big cities are being subjected to the effects of exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide emanating from automobile exhausts over a long period of time. Because of industrialization people are exposed to a variety of chemicals. Some of these chemicals accumulate gradually in the body and show their effects only when certain levels are reached. A notable example is mercury. The phrase “mad as a hatter” (the Mad Hatter of Alice in Wonderland) owes to origin to the fact that workers in felt-hat factories of the 19th century were exposed to mercury compounds in their work and were subject to neurotoxin effects. Many others eliminated or are detoxified by conversion to harmless substances through metabolic processes in the body unless too high a dose is absorbed.

Some authorities consider that over 80 percent of all cancers have their origin in environmental insults, as from chemicals and viruses. Some of these insults may have occurred many years before the cancer develops.

At a public meeting organized in New Delhi sometime in November 1997, the late Anil Aggarwal, Director of the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, disclosed that ‘tiny killers’ were believed to be killing 52,000 people prematurely in 36 Indian cities and that nobody could apparently escape them. These tiny killers are nothing other than “tiny suspended particulate matter” that pollutes the air over India’s many cities.

Delhi may have more vehicles and may have earned the distinction as one of the most polluted cities in the world, but Mumbai is not far behind. A report by an NGO, the International Institute for Sustainable Future, says that air pollution levels in Mumbai have increased due to runaway industrialization, endless increase in vehicles and the alarming rise in population. Another NGO, the Save Bombay Committee, says that while 60 percent of the pollution is caused by vehicles, while industry is responsible for 30 percent pollution. With a population of 15.6 million and with as many as 7,40,000 vehicles on its roads, Mumbai is ranked as the 15th most polluted city by the WHO. Around 4,500 tons of pollutants are released into the city air every day.

The decay of Mumbai has been compounded by its inadequate road infrastructure and less greenery; compared to Delhi, the city has only one-third of its greenery and much less road length. In fact, there are only two main arteries for this bustling metropolis. Thanks to the very heavy concentration of air pollutants like sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and particular matter, the citizens of Mumbai could be said to smoking 15 to 20 cigarettes each a day without ever using a cigarette. Around 13,000 people—out of them 2,000 children—suffer premature deaths because of air pollution. There is an Air (Pollution Control) Act that expects industries to obtain pollution certificates from the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB). Legal action is taken by the Board against those industrial units that flout the norms. But the industries know that they can get the certificates from MPCB without any difficulty.

In its ruling on April 5, 2002, the Supreme Court of India observed that the Union government seemed unwilling to accept the undoubted carcinogenic potential of automobile exhaust emissions particularly that of the particulates characteristic of diesel engines. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in the September2001 issue of its journal Parivesh described the cancer causing properties of diesel exhaust particularly those of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and nitro-PAH particulates. The mutagenecity of these compounds further increases when they undergo atmospheric transformation after they leave the engine.

Amongst serious diseases in India that can be linked to atmospheric pollution are cases of acute respiratory infection (accounting for 6 percent of deaths). Both these fractions are largest in the world. Other ailments caused by air pollution are chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, asthma, tuberculosis, cardiovascular disease and blindness. Thanks to the persistent intervention of the Supreme Court most of the buses and three-wheelers have switched over to CNG fuel that pollutes less. CNG has been introduced partially in other cities like Mumbai and Baroda as fuel for motor vehicles replacing the diesel. The recently introduced ethanol-petrol in a few selected States is also less polluting.

The year2000witnessed a battle royal between the industrial workers, supported by politicians and those determined to enforce strict pollution laws in order to safeguard the health of the citizens of the National Capital. The Supreme Court has been hearing cases relating to pollution since 1985 and in 1996 it gave the authorities more than four years to relocate polluting units and factories away from the city. But even after the 1996 order, the Delhi Government issued as many as 15,000 new licenses for industrial units in residential areas. While, every effort should be made to safeguard the interests of industrial workers as a result of re-location of units away from the heart of the city. One cannot also ignore the health hazards to more than 10 million citizens of Delhi. Air pollution from the factories (in addition to vehicular emissions) and effluent discharges into water bodies are rapidly taking New Delhi to the position of being the most polluted city in the world. One estimate places the annual financial cost of treating pollution-related illness in Delhi at as much as Rs. 5,000 crore while another estimates that close to two-thirds of Delhi’s population suffers from respiratory problems.

Most of our rivers are polluted beyond the point of saturation. The so-called Ganga Action Plan initiated during the Rajiv Gandhi regime was called off midday because of mismanagement and corruption. Ganga continues to be polluted. So is the case with many other rivers, big and small. On January 24, 2000, in a significant order affecting thousands of industrial units, the Supreme Court of India banned the discharge of untreated effluents into the Yamuna River in Delhi and Haryana. A report filed by the Central Pollution Control Board indicated that Yamuna water was not fit for drinking as it contained pollutants far in excess of the standard set for the worst quality of drinking water. It was pointed out to the court that the permissible level of coliform was 5000 per 100 ML, but Yamuna water was found to contain over 11 crore coliform at one point of time of which 15 lakhs coliform could be attributed to faecal matter.

No doubt, we have taken several measures to tackle pollution with the Central Pollution Control Board and the State Pollution Control Boards constantly monitor pollution in different countries. This apart, we have identified 24 critically polluted areas in the country for suitable remedial action. But even with all this, there is no end to pollution that affects human health. There is a great need for public vigilance and strict implementation of antipollution laws. We need progress, but at the same, we cannot compromise with the health of the people.