Written by: Neetha Ann Dooy, Batch 2019-22, CMS College Kottayam, Kerala
"Let the clean air blow the cobwebs from your body. Air is medicine." -Lillian Russell
Air is medicine and India is a bedridden patient suffering from a severe shortage of quality air. Air Pollution levels in India are so high and so dangerous that we are practically choking. Think Delhi, our National Capital. The Air Quality Level of Delhi has deteriorated to worse in the past few days.
The gist of the Indian plight is evident from the fact that India is home to seven of the top ten most polluted cities in the whole world! As per 2018, IQAir Air Visual Survey brought out in collaboration with Greenpeace Southeast Asia, Gurugram(Haryana) is the most polluted city in the world. Ghaziabad(UP), Faridabad(Haryana), Bhiwadi(Rajasthan), Noida(UP), Patna(Bihar) and Lucknow(UP) have all 'made it to the list'.
Two-thirds of India resides in villages. And villages are contributing heavily to air pollution. The burning of biomass for cooking as well as the burning of agricultural residue after harvesting are both contributing their lion's share to plummeting our air quality levels.
When we hear the term 'pollution', the image that immediately comes to our mind is that of people wearing masks and walking along a heavily smoggy road. But that is not the big picture. There is the phenomenon of 'indoor' air pollution. And studies have shown that it is far more lethal than outdoor air pollution. Burning of wood and charcoal in rural homes leads to an increase in the concentration of PM 2.5 levels. These particles are about 20 times smaller than the width of human hair. As a result of their extremely fine size, PM 2.5 can penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream, thereby causing several health hazards. And it's alarming that the majority of our brethren, including children, are exposed to such grave dangers every single day…
Indoor air pollution is a major killer. Studies suggest that it has claimed about 1.3 million lives in India. Women and children of the rural areas are the most affected. Studies have found that unchecked levels of pollution can retard lung function and brain development in children. The adverse health effects of pollution do not end here. Exposure to pollutants during pregnancy can lead to premature births.
Many pollutants, especially particulate matter (PM), are Group I Carcinogens. PM 10 and PM 2.5 are some of the most deadly pollutants clogging the Indian atmosphere. Also, air pollution leads to DNA Mutations, Cardiovascular diseases, Cognitive retardation, Respiratory tract infections, and diseases, Chronic bronchitis, Premature Deaths, to name a deadly few.
The major cause of indoor air pollution is the use of solid fuels for cooking. Wood, charcoal, cow dung are all easily available and thus widely used in rural India. However, these fuels undergo incomplete combustion and thus leave a huge amount of pollutants (PM2.5) in its wake. Also, the burning of solid fuels produces soot, which can further deteriorate the quality of our kitchens.
So what can we do to curb the evils of indoor air pollution? There are plenty of steps one can take on an individual basis. But the most important and effective solution is switching over to cleaner cooking fuels. Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG), aka Cooking Gas, is the answer to the Indian dilemma.
LPG is a mixture of hydrocarbons, the prominent ones being Propane and Butane. LPG undergoes complete combustion and also has a negligible amount of greenhouse gas emissions. It is a clean fuel and safe to use on a daily basis. Also, LPG can be easily stored and transported, thus increasing its utility.
Calorific Value is the amount of heat produced on the complete combustion of a given mass of fuel. Now the Calorific Value of LPG is 50 MJ/Kg (Megajoules per Kilogram). Now in comparison, the Calorific Value of Wood is only 18-21 MJ/Kg. The statistics are more than enough to show how effective LPG is.
Recognizing the potential benefits of LPG, the Indian Government has subsidized it. 'Give Up LPG Subsidy' was launched by the Narendra Modi led government in March 2015. The scheme aims to persuade the rich to give up their LPG subsidy so that it can be redistributed to the poor.
Globally, India is the 2nd largest consumer of LPG. However, the fact remains that a major portion of rural India still does not have access to LPG. Realizing the threats widespread use of solid cooking fuels possess, the Government of India, led by Narendra Modi, launched ' Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana' on May 1, 2016, to distribute free LPG connections to women of BPL families lacking clean cooking fuels.
The Ujjwala Scheme primarily targeted about 50 million LPG connections. However, the scheme was later expanded to cover 80 million LPG connections. The scheme was successful in achieving its target. However, it suffered serious drawbacks too.
To understand where the scheme failed, let's get to understand how the scheme works. A woman, from a BPL family, who is applying for the Ujjwala Scheme, will be provided with a free LPG gas connection. The cost of the connection, which covers the security fee and the fitting charges, amounts to ₹1600. This will be borne by the Government.
However, the beneficiary has to purchase her own cooking stove. To ease the financial burden on the beneficiary, the scheme allows her to pay for the stove and the first refill in monthly interest-free installments. But the cost of all the subsequent refills have to be borne by the beneficiary herself.
This is where the scheme fails. Many studies have shown that with the onset of the Ujjwala Scheme, the number of LPG connections have increased. However, the use of LPG cylinders has not proportionately increased. This is due to the high cost of refills the beneficiary has to pay for.
Most of the Ujjwala beneficiaries used to obtain their solid cooking fuels free of cost. So no matter how much we speak about the health hazards of solid fuels, they simply will not see the point in switching over to LPG fuel if the refills continue to be outside their financial capabilities.
Many studies, including the ones commissioned by the Government itself, have shown that the Scheme was rolled out in a haste. Time and again, the studies have pointed out that the Ujjwala Yojana will have better chances of working only of the subsidy on refills is further increased.
The Ujjwala Yojana is an ambitious scheme. If enrolled properly, the Scheme can purify our rural homes and rid them of harmful pollutants. The Scheme, in all rights, if envisioned properly, is a social investment India is in dire need of.
Air pollution costs India not only her health but her economy too. It is burning a humongous hole in Indian pockets. As per World Bank reports, air pollution costs India about 8.5% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). That amounts to more than $560 Billion!! The study has taken into account both the welfare losses and labor output losses incurred as a result of air pollution.
Change is possible only if we start at an individual level. We all think someone else will do it for us. Why care? There are millions of others on this Earth. But sadly, if everyone thinks this way, then yes, we are on the path to self-destruction.
As per WHO estimates, about 5 lakh deaths happen in India due to unclean cooking fuels. There are many of us who still use solid fuels for cooking under the assumption that food cooked in the traditional way tastes better. It's time to see through these myths and shake them off. It's time to spread awareness about the fact that tradition cooking fuels will only give us a taste of death.
We still have time. We still can save lives. So let's prove the statistics wrong. Let's get to action so that all of us can breathe safely in our own homes. Breathe Green.