Much like Lewis Black, I could say, the “rant was due”.

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Smog in a typical Indian mega-city. Nevertheless, high-rises such as these are advertised as “gated” paradises on earth.

Of my 37 years of life, I have lived 22 of them in big Indian cities. I owe a lot of my life’s success to city life. Cities provide excellent education, social networks, opportunities and the like.

Yet, somehow, I have the deep-rooted feeling that something is very wrong with Indian cities.

  • The air pollution in large Indian cities is unchecked, unregulated and unhindered.

Speaking of gated communities, every time I see an advertisement for such a community, the artist’s interpretation view shows the complex surrounded by green as far as the eye can see. In reality, there is probably another gated community (replete with its own swimming pool, country and curated micro patch of green) starting exactly after the advertised one. Not to mention, slums or nallah (open drains) that might lie on other sides of the community.

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An artist’s impression of a gated community shows green as far as the eye can see on all sides of the complex.
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Yet, reality is often not as “green”. Very often, there are gated communities, new construction, slums etc. right next door.

But I diverge. Let me focus on the main point of this article.

Toxic cities and effect on child health

It is my belief that the big Indian cities are becoming unlivable. Our cities have the greatest of extravagances (e.g. large malls, indoor play-areas) but the worst of basic amenities (e.g. clean air, open spaces to play in). There is a lot of “public” (India slang for people), but very less “public space”. People in the cities would rather shut their windows to block the outside air, and instead live on “clean air” from air purifiers.

Related to all this, I have the following hypothesis:

“The high level of pollution and lack of open spaces in Indian cities is harmful to the physical fitness of the urban child”

This seems completely obvious, right? Yet no one (myself included) seems to be taking any active steps about it.

To satisfy my scientific bent of mind, I requested a researcher to summarize the findings of few studies demonstrating the negative effects of air pollution on child health (see section titled “Extra: Summary….” at the end of the article). The following one line from WHO’s 2018 report on Air Pollution and Child Health says it all.

The evidence is clear: air pollution has a devastating impact on children’s health.

And yes, I know WHO does not stand in very good public reckoning right now (thanks to their handling of the COVID-19 situation). But the case against pollution still stands.

Then again, I am just stating the obvious so far. The more important point relates to what I stand to gain by stating my hypothesis.

So, what do I gain by stating my hypothesis?

My aim here is not to prove that pollution has devastating effects on child health, or to demonstrate how severe such effects are. Instead, I just want people to reflect on my “toxic city rant” for a bit.

Parents reading this article obviously put their child’s bright future among their highest priorities. They put their children in the best schools. They make sure they get the best out of school training. They give them the best organic food ingredients.

But what if, at the core of it all, your child’s physical fitness was being compromised? What if the air your child was breathing was actually harmful? (I am a parent myself and I absolutely do not wish so, but I am just following my instincts and posing the question.) What if the lack of open spaces (and subsequently, the lack of unstructured play) was actually rendering your child less physically fit than their full potential? What if my negative insinuations about today’s city life were true?

What changes would you consider making if my hypothesis were actually true? Here are some of the steps I have seen people in my generation making.

Option 1. “Quit India movement”

Would you consider quitting the country and make your home in a cleaner, greener country? Many people opt to relocate to developed countries (US, UK, Australia, Canada) for these reasons.

Though I am currently living in Hyderabad, I have lived in the US for over a decade. As a result, I identify with this option the most. But let me tell you, relocating to another country is not all fun and glory. Having to uproot yourself from the world you grew up in and installing yourself in a completely different culture (however nice that culture might be) has its downsides too. And if you add Visa issues, work permits, international travel restrictions to that, then you end up with a whole new set of problems to deal with. Nevertheless, relocating to a more developed country does seem to solve the polluted city problem.

Option 2. “Escape the city”

Would you consider moving to smaller Indian cities? Opportunities in smaller cities might be fewer, but your child’s health might be benefited.

Personally, I wish that more and more people begin to choose this option. Personally, I have not yet figured out the right small city in India that would satisfy the employment aspirations for my wife and I, and also support our son in his education. Yet, I personally know of at least one family who has quit a big Indian city and moved to smaller one (in fact, the COVID-19 mismanagement of the big Indian city they lived in eventually prompted them to pull the trigger on this decision). In this family’s case, they had two things going for them that allowed them to move to the smaller Indian city — a business that can be run online, and family back in the smaller Indian city. Mint recently ran their weekend cover story on this topic. The article featured several people who have “escaped the city” and made their homes (and are earning their livings) in small towns across India. Another related article showed how many companies including Zoho Corp. and 91springboard are creating satellite offices or even moving headquarters to smaller Indian cities (Goa, Coimbatore etc.) and Indian villages.

Anyway, I say more power to people who make moves like this. (I feel that there is one major technical parameter while choosing a small Indian city to move to — language. You better choose a small city whose primary language you can fluently speak. But maybe that isn’t that big an issue either.)

Option 3. “Stay and fight”

Finally, we come to the last option — making real improvements to the cities. Would you consider challenging the status quo and fight to make large Indian cities more livable?

This one is what we ought to really work on (the other two options are really escapist routes). Yet, this option is the most difficult, and there is often a sense of overwhelm when faced with such an intractable problem. People would rather accept the status quo (e.g. closing all the house windows and breathing artificially purified air) instead of actually trying to improve the quality of air in cities.

Is there a grand solution for the “toxic city” problem? Could some unforeseen inventions drastically reduce pollution levels, and suddenly improve the quality of life in our cities?

I, for one, would not bet my life on such miracles.

Tiny actions, profound implications

Instead, let us try to think of some changes that we can make at the grassroots level. I like to hope that our world is a sum product of the tiniest actions, choices and thoughts of every person on the planet. Take all the good that you see in the world — music, art, scientific breakthroughs, compassion and love. In some inexplicable way, you have contributed and are contributing to all that good. Conversely, you are also responsible for anything bad that is happening in the world. Environmental damage, extreme economic inequities, racial discrimination — name any societal or global evil, you have a hand in it too.

Then again, the above might seem like mumbo jumbo to you — you might think that your individual contribution to the good or the bad is infinitesimally small, and hence irrelevant. And you might believe that the good and the bad is instead driven by larger players in society — politicians, CEO-s of the largest corporations, artists and actors, etc. Yet that seems like a very defeatist attitude to me — if you are reading this piece, wouldn’t you like to believe that you have a part to play in shaping the world.

Finally, I believe that the prominent public personalities of a nation and community mirror the sentiments of the public (i.e. you). Good or bad, be that in a government, corporation or any individual, does not exist in a vacuum. It exists because of the actions (or inaction) of the larger population (remember, that inaction or turning a blind eye to something is also in a way an active action).

What tiny actions could help make cities less toxic?

Just as an example of our tiny actions, let us consider our consumption choices.

  • I stated earlier that builders are building on every available tract of land and are over-exploiting the resources. It would sound like I am blaming them. But the greater blame is on us who are continuing to purchase and rent apartments and office space in already crowded localities.

I am just trying to make you see that your tiniest actions do have an impact. In this way, every individual’s consumption pattern influences the trajectory of a city (be that good or bad). How is it that, Singapore, one of the largest city economies in the world, has more public space (47%) than any of India’s large metropolitan cities (Mumbai with one of the largest city parks in the world clocks in at only 2.5%)? (Link, link)

Ultimately, it is not just the government or corporations that are responsible. The people of a country, state or city have a responsibility too. And I am sure that in some way, each individual’s actions matter. There is power in collective thought. Our individual thoughts and small actions have real impact on our entire community as a whole.

The smallest seed of an idea

I call out to you to start thinking about the most pressing problems of our time. The “toxic city” cause (“environment degradation of cities and its impact on health”) and other such causes need urgent attention. We cannot sustain a world much longer where the pressing problems of our time are brushed under the carpet and forgotten amidst the blur of our social media crazy, app-happy lifestyles.

But for us to stand up and take active actions, we need to really think deeply in our core that something is wrong with our cities. The worst that we could fear is that terribly high levels of city pollution (be that in air, noise or water) can be harmful for our children. And this fear might eventually invoke us to change our consumption patterns and/or take some active steps.

This is ultimately what I stand to gain from stating my hypothesis — just planting a seed of a thought in a mind.

And as we saw in the movie, “Inception”, a seed of a thought is all it takes to make revolutionary changes, right?

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“An idea is like a virus. Resilient. Highly contagious. And even the smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.” — Inception, the movie

Extra: Summary of some studies documenting negative effects of air pollution on child health

Extensive research has been conducted on the adverse impact of air pollution on children’s health. A study concluded that air pollution gravely impacts the respiratory health of children, finding “strong evidence of a positive association between exposure to outdoor NO2 and increased odds of current asthma” [1]. This is further supported by another study that points to exposure to toxic air pollutants during exercise and the higher possibility of developing asthma [2]. What demands attention is the vulnerability of children to air pollution as “their innate defence against inhaled pollutants may be impaired” [3]. Not only is the respiratory health of children impacted by toxic air pollution, the latter is also responsible for multiple cognitive and behavioral disorders, malnutrition, and infectious disease, physical and mental well-being of children [4].

The gravity of the problem can be further ascertained from the threats it poses to infants. The research found that high exposure to CO (Carbon Monoxide) causes an average 289 g lower birth weight in infants [5], while another study argues that air pollution is responsible for “preterm births” [4]. The danger posed by Carbon Monoxide is evidenced as one study concludes, “CO exposure during pregnancy and just before birth has a significantly negative impact on fetal growth and birth weight” [5].

The impacts of air pollution can vary in intensity, with some being the development of respiratory illness, pneumonia, bronchitis, malnutrition, cognitive and behavioral disorders, and chronic kidney disease with higher rates in hospital admissions [4, 6, 7]. However, what demands our attention is the fact that exposure to air pollution “causes about seven million premature deaths each year” with “More than one in every four deaths of children under 5 years of age is directly or indirectly related to environmental risks” [8].

References quoted above

  1. Knibbs, L. D., Waterman, A. M., Toelle, B. G., Guo, Y., Denison, L., Jalaludin, B., . . . Williams, G. M. (2018). The Australian Child Health and Air Pollution Study (ACHAPS): A national population-based cross-sectional study of long-term exposure to outdoor air pollution, asthma, and lung function. Environment International, 120, 394–403. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412018309838.

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  • “Extra: Summary of some studies documenting negative effects of air pollution on child health” — Asim Shaukat

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Engineer | Author of “The Creative Side Hustle” https://mybook.to/creativesidehustle

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