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TODAY’S TALK ON EDITORIALS CIVILS360

AUGUST 11, 2017

It’s time to focus on the toxic air we breathe

  • On June 27, 2017, the Niti Aayog released the draft National Energy Policy. It invited comments from the public to help strengthen its perspectives on some of the complex issues surrounding energy security.

Public health and growth

  • An important aspect that the draft policy ignores is public health, especially in the context of the energy mix envisaged under the NITI Ambition Scenario.
  • The Ambition Scenario is a tool to arrive at a range of possible energy futures for the energy sector till 2040.
  • The range presents the scenarios which India may follow if it were to follow a business-as-usual path versus if it were to transition to an ambitious pathway which is cleaner and more sustainable.
  • In the document, there are 14 references to health, of which only five relate to public health in the context of household cooking fuel. The rest are analogies to describe the health of the coal sector and discoms.
  • The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that air pollution is the number one environmental health risk. In 2012, about three million premature deaths were attributable to ambient air pollution.
  • According to environmental health researchers, children represent the subgroup of the population most affected by air pollution and will be the primary beneficiaries of policies to reduce fossil fuel emissions.
  • Moreover, research has also established links between public health and a nation’s economic growth. The estimated cost of ambient air pollution in terms of the value of lives lost and ill health in OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, India and China is more than $3.5 trillion annually. Similarly, a joint study by the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation found that the aggregate cost of premature deaths due to air pollution was more than $5 trillion worldwide in 2013 alone. In East and South Asia, welfare losses related to air pollution were the equivalent of about 7.5% of GDP.
  • Given that every sector’s decisions, including the energy sector, can have repercussions on determinants of health, the WHO’s Health in All Policies (HiAP) framework was established wherein health considerations are made in policymaking across different sectors, such as power, transport, agriculture and housing, that could influence health.
  • In keeping with HiAP, the Health and Family Welfare Ministry (MHFW) established a steering committee with the aim to garner multi-sectoral commitment to address the issue of air pollution in India. Furthermore, the National Health Policy of 2017 views reducing air pollution as vital to India’s health trajectory. However, the National Energy Policy neither reflects nor supports the commitment outlined by the MHFW.
  • Vision documents like the National Energy Policy have to strive to minimise the unavoidable health impacts of energy production, and their associated health costs, especially given the policy’s stated objectives of sustainability and economic growth.
  • The policy should include a health impact assessment framework to weigh the health hazards and health costs associated with the entire life cycle of existing and future energy projects and technologies. For instance, there is no method under the current policy regime, as proposed by the NITI Aayog, to evaluate the health impacts of coal’s contribution to mercury and fine particulate pollution, or the risk of radiation with envisaged increase in nuclear power, or the occupational exposures to silica and cadmium during photovoltaic panel manufacturing.

Towards a clean-up

  • The Swachh Bharat Mission is a high-profile national programme enjoying extraordinary political and budgetary support.
  • With its subsidy-based mass toilet-building programme, it has put up millions of individual house latrines in rural areas: a government-commissioned survey estimates that the coverage now extends to 62.45% of households, up from 39% in 2014. Among these households, nearly 92% of people who have access actually use the toilets.
  • Big gaps exist, but these are encouraging trends, given the many positive outcomes that sanitation produces. The most important of these is reduced stress for women, who suffer silently in its absence. There are well-known gains to public health as well.
  • Success can be measured, however, only through a rigorous assessment of how the new facilities fare over time.
  • There is data from undivided Andhra Pradesh to show that household latrines built before the current Swachh programme lapsed into disuse because many rural households did not have a water source. The newer ones may meet the same fate without access to water.
  • Also, Dalit houses tend to have lower coverage, hinting at structural difficulties in accessing schemes.
  • Rural housing also needs stronger policy support, without which it cannot wipe out the deficit of about 60 million units that are needed to plan for universal toilet access.
  • In the Centre’s assessment, Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Telangana have particularly failed to upgrade rural sanitation, while Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Uttarakhand, Haryana and Gujarat have exceeded the goals.
  • Given the substantial funding available from the Centre, State governments cannot have a convincing reason for a poor record.
  • The Union Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, which has introduced a new district-level ranking, should persuade the more backward States to bring about infrastructure improvements.
  • Yet, total Swachh will remain elusive, because even urban India has no comprehensive waste management plan, leave alone the less affluent rural areas.
  • Nearly 60% of sewage generated in the cities currently flows untreated into rivers, waterways, lakes and the sea. The rules on segregation of waste remain on paper even in the bigger cities.
  • It is now left to environmentally conscious citizens to adopt green practices, compost and sort their waste.
  • The big metros generate a few thousand tonnes of garbage every day, and city managers focus their energies on transporting refuse to landfills. Many Indians do not see the waste they generate as their problem, and consider it to be someone else’s responsibility.
  • Mahatma Gandhi saw in this attitude the pernicious roots of societal divisions, and campaigned against it. Achieving his vision for a clean nation will take more than symbolism — it needs clear policies and investments in the right systems.

Failing India’s children

  • The government’s proposal to amend the Right to Education Act and allow States to drop the no-detention policy at the primary and middle school levels will have far-reaching consequences for the education scenario.
  • The proposal, which will give States the choice to detain children in classes 5 and 8, does not consider socio-economic factors and the state’s limitations in providing education, especially for the weaker sections.
  • According to the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the dropout rate in elementary school was about 4% in 2014-2015. Detaining children on the basis of examinations will lead to an increase in the dropout rate.
  • Parents may feel the child will be better off going to work as he/she can help bring additional income to the family and learn a skill for survival.
  • Economically disadvantaged groups do not have access to private tuitions to train their children to perform better the following year in the same class. This will mean more youngsters out of school with no prospects of a productive future.

For Girl child:

  • Detention will become an added disincentive particularly for girls. They face numerous challenges including puberty (many drop out of school because they do not have access to low-cost sanitary napkins and toilets in schools), lack of schools closer home, and the burden of siblings and early marriage. There will be an increase in the number of child marriages and teenage pregnancies. In a society that considers the girl child a burden, and a country which has the second highest number of child marriages, parents will only find another reason to marry the girl off rather than send her to the same class for the second consecutive year. Cutting a girl child’s education short in the name of improving learning levels is certainly not in the best interest of ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao.’
  • The government’s latest proposal goes against the spirit of the RTE, which is a fundamental right guaranteeing free and compulsory education till the age of 14. According to the Right to Education Act: “The overall objective of age appropriate admission for these children is to save them from the humiliation and embarrassment of sitting with younger children. When older children are forced to sit in a class younger than their age, they tend to be teased, taunted, suffer lower self-esteem, and consequently drop out.” This logic also holds good for children who are made to repeat the same class while their classmates are promoted to the next class.

Quality teachers:

  • Teacher shortage and quality of teaching and learning continue to be huge challenges in a country that depends on the private sector to deliver on the education front. Given teacher absenteeism and shortage of skilled teachers in many state-run schools, and the level of competition children from disadvantaged groups face in private schools, it is unfair to evaluate children in an examination and deny them promotion based on their performance.
  • The RTE should not be curtailed for any reason. Many children from weaker sections have benefited from this right. Taking away the guarantee the Act offers up to the middle school level is retrograde.