I live in a cottage, one of a row of four, which stand alone, surrounded by trees and open fields, in a beautiful part of the English countryside. One of the aspects of this bucolic existence that I usually take for granted, is the clear clean air with which I am able to fill my lungs. I don’t usually give this a lot of thought, but a number of recent news items have given me good reason to be relieved that I live here, and not in other parts of the world.
On a couple of occasions when working in India I have developed a somewhat irritating cough. I generally put this down to the excessive noxious fumes emanating from the congested traffic, exposure to which is often intensified by travelling the streets in the back of an open sided auto-rickshaw. Belching exhaust fumes create a murky fog that hangs above the road and often make for an unpleasant travelling experience. Several reports from scientific surveys conducted in recent months confirm that my summation of the cause of my cough is probably correct. The Supreme Court in Delhi received a report from the Indian Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority last Friday, which gave an alarming picture of the air quality in the capital city. The report confirmed the assertions made in a World Health Organization study of 1,600 cities, which indicated that Delhi’s air pollution is now officially at the highest level of any city in the world.
Understandably the Indian Environment Pollution Authority have recommended urgent action to address this alarming issue, which is already having a negative impact upon the health of city dwellers. Limiting the number of motor vehicles allowed on the roads at any one time, and taking greater actions to manage exhaust emissions are proposals that one might expect. However, it was another proposal that particularly caught my attention. The authors of the report have urged the Supreme Court to order that all schools in Delhi should be closed on days when levels of air pollution are deemed to pose a threat to public health.
This proposal of such drastic action must obviously be of concern to all teachers and parents in the city, yet this would certainly not be a unique situation. In Shanghai recently, as the city experienced one its worst recorded instances of air pollution, the authorities ordered that all school children should be kept indoors for the sake of their health. Elsewhere in China severe pollution recently forced school closures and the shutdown of the airport in the city of Harbin.
My only visit to Shanghai was to the airport from which I departed China a few years ago. I recall from my window seat on the plane looking down and being disappointed that rather than a view of Shanghai’s famous skyline, all I could see was a murky orange cloud of smog. My memories of a visit to Delhi last year are of an excellent conference, the magnificent monument of the Qutub Minar and the moving memorial to Gandhi at Raj Ghat, but also of the slightly acrid taste of the air around the international airport.
The concerns expressed for the health of children living in these cities, and the many others which have high levels of pollution and poor air quality must surely lead to drastic action. The children currently attending schools (when they are open) in these toxic environments are being left a dreadful legacy. It is probably their generation that will be required to apply even more drastic measures to undo the havoc currently being reaped across the globe. That is, of course, assuming that they are fit enough to take on this daunting task. I find myself wondering how teachers in schools in these cities address the current environmental challenges with their students? Many of today’s primary school children have never seen a pure blue sky. At night there are no stars visible, and it is no longer possible to appreciate a view across the city from a distant hill. Will history teachers be recalling the time when blue skies and stars were experienced by city dwellers? Will sweeping vistas be understood only from the pictures presented by art teachers as a point of reference for their students?
Some scientists are claiming that it is already too late to reverse this terrible decline. Others are more optimistic and believe that if actions are taken now it may be possible to correct much of the damage. There must be an imperative upon every individual to assist in addressing this calamitous situation, and education should certainly be at the forefront of this action. It cannot be claimed that we do not know the causes of the environmental disaster that we are currently witnessing, not only in India and China, but in much of the world. It is unacceptable to expect that those children who are currently attending our schools should shoulder the responsibility for addressing this catastrophe in the future.