The Great Smog of India by Siddharth Singh: A detailed account of the rising Air Pollution in India, its causes and what it entails for us.

Siddharth Singh in the first chapter of his book gives us a chilling statistic, “In sheer magnitude, air pollution kills over a million Indians every year- albeit silently. More residents of Delhi are killed, silently, every week than have been killed in terrorist incidents in the past decade. More Indians are killed every week by air pollution than have been killed in all India-Pakistan wars put together since Independence. Again, silently.” The book has come at a time when the city grapples with poor air quality, failing health conditions, and our refusal to change our lifestyle.

With air pollution rising with increased force every passing minute, the author has attempted to give us a clear account of the cause behind India’s decreasing air quality, the factors contributing to it and how human health is affected while exploring what pollution stands for and it’s origination. The author goes on to articulate and compare how other countries tackled their air pollution crisis; whether it was a success or not, and further delves into the administrative issues that have hindered policies, and action.

We’ve all witnessed the air quality in Delhi deteriorating, adding to major health risks, accidents, and overall discomfort to the citizens. It’s like the city is swallowed whole by a layer of black smoke. Singh says, “Air Pollution is a structural issue in the region, one that spans several states and countries. Particularly in the winters, a haze encompasses the entire northern Indian region.” The situation is far worse than what meets the eye but the people are so used to it, and no longer take it seriously. During Diwali, despite severe warnings, people stepped out wearing masks to burn crackers. It’s alarming how we’re ready to ignore the health risks and continue being in denial.

Singh talks about the impact economic disparity has on healthcare. Those belonging to affluent and upper-middle-class families can afford private healthcare, while those who can’t, have to deal with government hospitals that are ill-equipped, and understaffed and have little to no experience in treating patients. The dilapidated condition of the hospitals is not a myth. When working on a series, Vidya Krishnan, the health and science editor at The Hindu newspaper had to visit a government-run-hospital in Old Delhi. What she saw was alarming and terrifying. Not only did she spot cats roaming about in it, but they were also collecting placenta and biomedical waste to eat. If you think the horror ends there, you’re wrong. The urinal was placed inside the maternity ward. When she expressed her concerns to a doctor, she was dismissed and asked to mind her own business.  The poor continue to suffer, and with India’s rising air pollution, the future looks bleak.

It comes as no surprise that children are facing the brunt of air pollution the hardest. There several ongoing studies both in India and other countries. One such study revealed negative impacts on language and mathematics skills measured in fourth-grade children due to particulate pollution. Naturally, the productivity of the working force is affected, which in turn affects the economy.

The book ends with the author giving us a summarized version of The Great Smog of India, the factors leading up to it, and the solutions to combat the issue. It is commendable how much research has gone into the making of this book; it’s extensive and can be understood easily.

All in all, this book is a concise guide on understanding and learning about the big monster, air pollution, that has been looming and seems to only grow powerful.

Author: Siddharth Sing

Publisher: Penguin India

Genre: Non-fiction

Rating: 4.5/5

Format: Hardback

Pages: 199


Air pollution kills over a million Indians every year, albeit silently. Families are thrown into a spiralling cycle of hospital visits, critically poor health and financial trouble impacting their productivity and ability to participate in the economy. Children born in regions of high air pollution are shown to have irreversibly reduced lung function and cognitive abilities that affects their incomes for years to come. They all suffer, silently.
The issue is exacerbated every winter, when the Great Smog of India descends and envelops much of northern India. In this period, the health impact from mere breathing is akin to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. The crisis is so grave that it warrants emergency health advisories forbidding people from stepping out. And yet, for most of us, life is business as usual.
It isn’t that the scientific community and policymakers don’t know what causes air pollution, or what it will take to tackle the problem. It is that the problem is social and political as much as it is technological, and human problems are often harder to overcome than scientific ones. Each sector of the economy that needs reform has its underlying political, economic and social dynamics that need to be addressed to make a credible impact on emissions.
With clarity and compelling arguments, and with a dash of irony, Siddharth Singh demystifies the issue: where we are, how we got here, and what we can do now. He discusses not only developments in sectors like transport, industry and energy production that silently contribute to air pollution, but also the ‘agricultural shock’ to air quality triggered by crop burning in northern India every winter. He places the air pollution crisis in the context of India’s meteorological conditions and also climate change. Above all, and most alarmingly, he makes clear what the repercussions will be if we remain apathetic.

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