Last week, pollution levels peaked across North India and in the Delhi- National Capital Region (NCR).
The entire region was gasping under frightening air quality levels which in Delhi crossed the 1,000 mark. Imagine that you are a non-smoker and yet you have inhaled the smoke from 15-44 cigarettes right now. Worse - this happens at the same rate on subsequent days.
There is nothing left to imagination after last week, when entire North India was choking under what many people, affected by its thick, pale, deathly, suffocating engulf, described as "the haze from burning leaves".
According to WHO (World Health Organisation), inhaling air anywhere above the 25 mark is unsafe.
Look at the figure of 25 against 1,000. Look again. Breathe/cough.
People in North India were inhaling air with a PM2.5 content (which means atmospheric particulate matter (PM) with a diameter < 2.5 micrometers) of between 950 to 1,000, which, according to the independent Berkeley Earth Science Research Group, is considered roughly equivalent to smoking 44 cigarettes a day.
What makes air quality levels above the 25 mark critical? The World Health Organisation explains it here.
"...this mortality is due to exposure to small particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less in diameter (PM2.5), which cause cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and cancers."
The poisonous air does not discriminate. Children, especially school-going children, who can't avoid being outdoors, are particularly vulnerable.
India's apex court came down heavily on the three northern states and ordered all farm fires to be halted. However, many fear that even that will not stop the farm fires.
Civic construction was stopped and other band-aid measures were taken but the main reason for the pollution havoc across North India --- the illegal burning of crop stubble by farmers mainly in Punjab, followed by Haryana and Uttar Pradesh --- continued.
Why can't parents wean away children from the school schedule during the season of paraali (stubble), the period when burning of crop and crop waste takes place? Lives. Livelihoods. Homes. Schools. Among these, schools are the toughest to adjust with.
Do parents have a choice to rescue school-going kids from the city/town/region or even outdoors --- as per what their means and education machinery allow during this part of October and November? None yet.
Children. Thinkers around the globe consider children a nation's asset. It is clear that India would do well by not keeping this asset bound to the school schedule during the month of October and November.
Children in North India should be on vacation during the season when paraali is burnt. For that to happen, the ministry of HRD, PMO, state administration, schools and parents must think about it, and try and put in place an alternative.
One possible alternative is: break away from the current vacation pattern for the academic year and fix a three-week flexible vacation during the paraali-burning season.
Smog Vacation --- The Reasons For This Gasping Need
#1 What role does being outdoors play in air emergencies? While doctors in India have been warning from time to time on the ill effects, here is what the WHO has to say:
WHO estimates that in 2016, some 58 per cent of outdoor air pollution-related premature deaths were due to ischaemic heart disease and strokes, while 18 per cent of deaths were due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and acute lower respiratory infections respectively, and 6 per cent of deaths were due to lung cancer.
#2 Many citizens in Delhi, even five days since the ‘suffocating Sunday’, do not have access to N 95 masks that are considered the standard for filtering out the hazardous PM2.5 particles.
Out of these, many are school-going children. The story is bound to be the same in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
#3 Tens of thousands of school-going children are required to be at schools in Delhi around this time of the year. And children above the age of six years spend a large part of their day at school. Air purifiers are not an option.
The N 95 masks recommended by doctors are useful but school-going kids will not wear them round the clock --- especially not for a month --- and so the idea of keeping them at schools with masks on is unpragmatic, scary, dystopic, and dangerous.
#4 Two days prior to when this air emergency hit the capital it was visible that school authorities and parents were not really treating the deteriorating air quality as a cause of alarming concern.
Ironically, many schools in the region had closed for a "crackerless Diwali" and had just reopened after the festival. The pollution levels spiked thereafter, the haze drowned cities and schools were declared further closed until 5 November.
Was that really enough for a crop-burning season that had started in October? What has been the unseen damage to children?
#5 Delhi-NCR is not India. Delhi-NCR is not even North India. Delhi's geography may have placed it as a highly-vulnerable sufferer but Delhi clearly is not the only sufferer in the air emergency where terms like "benzene", "formaldehyde" and "carcinogens" are becoming and will become household words across North India.
The pollution devil is sharing the child's desk and is shifting with the wind.
#6 Many times, schools wait for the order to arrive from the state’s education department to take the most health-saving measures, like the closing of schools, or wearing of proper masks.
Such an attitude is not sufficient nor is it an efficient way to address air emergencies.
#7 Classrooms are enclosed spaces. If homes are not considered air-quality safe, how are classrooms considered perfect or safe for keeping children (considering the strength per class) engaged and shut for an average of six hours a day (minus travel time)?
Children start for schools early in the morning, when pollution levels are high. Their travel time to school occurs at the same hours that doctors consider dangerous for outdoor walks, jogs and exercising.
Rescheduling or rearranging the academic session should not be thought of as a knee-jerk reaction.
Measures to circumvent stubble burning and prevent the related high pollution levels in cities --- these much essential, obvious and demanded solutions must be implemented and the centre and state governments must look into it, no doubt.
The suggested alternative of introducing a new vacation into the school academic year in the region could be a measure in addition to all THOSE desperate set of measures suggested by other stakeholders.
No education policy is worth the effort of implementing if the country's school-going children have to walk to desks with smoke-filled lungs and watery eyes.
It must be noted that the proposed ‘smog vacation’ is not just another vacation. It is the much-needed breathing space for gasping lungs that school-going children deserve as a basic right to life.
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