Pollution: Double whammy for the homeless
The poor and the homeless are the worst affected by air pollution as they are exposed to the elements round the clock.
Pollution is now considered one of the biggest hazards to human health after malnutrition. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated 90 lakh premature deaths caused by pollution. Of them, air pollution was responsible for the majority of these deaths, at 66 lakh. In India, pollution caused 2.3 million premature deaths in 2019. Of these, 16 lakh were due to air pollution alone.
While the crisis is believed to impact all individuals, there are people who are disproportionately affected and exposed to air pollution. When air quality worsens, most people stay indoors. But for individuals experiencing homelessness, that’s not always an option. People experiencing homelessness, particularly those who sleep outdoors at night, are the most vulnerable and exposed population to environmental health hazards. Many individuals sleep near a road or under a bridge which leads to exposure to high levels of traffic-related emissions.
The irony is, they are the least polluters as they can’t afford fancy cars or live in air-conditioned apartments, but the worst hit from the repercussions of air pollution. What adds to their misery is that they have no voice in policymaking. The measures under the Graded Response Action Plan are not meant to benefit this strata.
They don’t have cars to be bothered about the odd and even scheme. The schools where their children go are not equipped with online classes. Their employers never provide them the work from home option. The costly N-95 masks and the luxury of air purifiers are beyond the size of their pockets.
For construction workers, labourers, hawkers, house maids and other daily wagers, the pollution level and the measures to curb it are double whammy which is impacting their health and also livelihood. Many individuals sleep near a road or under a bridge which leads to exposure to high levels of traffic related emissions.
How air pollution impacts health & livelihood
Kishori Lal Chourasiya, a rickshaw driver, said his health had deteriorated severely due to the severe pollution.“I suffered major burns from a fire cracker on Diwali. My trouble was doubled when I could not sleep and feeling nauseous because of the pollution. I am a poor person driving a cycle-rickshaw, working very hard to earn a 2 times meal. I managed to sustain during the Covid pandemic but somehow the pollution got me this time,” he said.
Tabrez Alam, who makes a livelihood repairing bicycles working in the open, said he lost two days of earnings due to pollution sickness. “I could not go to work for 2 days because of a severe cough and wheezing. I could have gone to the district government hospital but it was resolved after I took home remedies. It’s saddening that the crackers were burnt endlessly in spite of their ban in the city,” he said.
Gopal, a florist who sets up his shop in Dwarka sector 22, found pollution this year worse than previous years. “I could feel some change in the air; it wasn’t fog but rather smog. Being in the open 24X7, I started coughing at times. I believe I have a strong immune system and hence I recovered quickly. However this is the first time that I faced any such problem. Usually whenever winter comes, it brings with it the pollution problem, but I felt like it was worse than before this time. Why does the
government not find a long term solution to it when the problem is recurring?” he said.
10 year old Asmin, who lives in a west Delhi-based slum, said her father lost his job after he fell sick due to the severe pollution. “My father worked as a carpenter before he lost his job recently. He had a severe cough due to which he could not go to work. He was later asked to leave his work,” she said.
Suresh Garg, managing director at Nirala India, a real estate firm, said due to the GRAP rules which restrict construction, the number of labourers has drastically gone down. “Due to the long duration of GRAP restrictions, the labourers chose to go back to their hometowns. We face difficulty in finding them now. Contractors can manage their wages for a few days but it can’t be sustained for longer periods. Besides, it hampers the real estate developers in delivering projects on time,” he added.
According to various reports published in the media, the number of current construction workers registered with the Delhi government has dropped by around 90% in less than a year and a half.“Hawkers are exposed to pollutants for 15-18 hours. Climate change impacts their livelihood indirectly. In the summer, they face heat waves which puts them at severe health hazard and in the winter, they are exposed to acutely poor air quality. They are directly inhaling vehicular pollution. They can’t sit at home. They have to be on the streets to earn a livelihood. The diseases they get put them more vulnerable financially,” Sandeep Verma, Convener (Delhi), National Hawker Federation.
Health and education losses for children
Children are one of the most vulnerable groups to the air pollution impact. Health experts say that living near a busy road can significantly impact your health due to increased exposure to air pollution, especially for children.
“Children are particularly vulnerable to the health effects of air pollution. It hampers their cognitive skills. Their lungs are still developing, making them more susceptible to damage from air pollutants. They breathe faster than adults, so they take in more air and pollutants. They spend more time outdoors than adults, increasing their exposure to air pollution,” said Dr Kuldeep Kumar Grover, head of critical care and pulmonology, CK Birla Hospital.
Besides, the frequent closure of schools due to pollution and other adversities has started affecting the studies of street-children.11-year-old Saif Ali, who lives in a slum near Rajouri garden, said he could not understand the class lectures given online.
“I wasn’t very happy with the 10 day long vacation provided due to increased air pollution in the city. Our teachers taught us online but most of my friends, including me had a deterred internet connection. Some of my classmates did not even have a phone. So how could we study online? It became very difficult to understand what was taught,” Ali shared.Besides, the children expressed regret over not being able to go outside to play or to study because of the increased air pollution. Their parents shared that it was a herculean task for them to prevent the young kids from going out.
“Families with ties to street life experience the most pronounced adverse effects of pollution. These children and families lack the means to relocate to more favorable environments, often residing in makeshift shelters on pavements, in close proximity to slum areas, alongside train tracks, near bustling marketplaces, or beneath overpasses. Their livelihoods, which involve activities such as scavenging, vending, operating roadside eateries, or even resorting to begging, offer them limited respite, as these pursuits constitute their primary means of survival,” said Sanjay Gupta, director, Childhood Enhancement through Training and Action (Chetna)
Mitigation policies an environmental injustice?
According to environment experts, for the shelterless and underprivileged, the environment they are forced to live in is a state of misery and the measures imposed by the government to improve it are elite. In fact, they called the current state an environmental injustice and asked for an equitable plan.“The urban poor community is one of the most vulnerable populations to the air pollution crisis. Unfortunately, the existing clean air action plans have failed to recognize this reality. Often, precautions issued by the government to mitigate air pollution neglect those most at risk, including the urban poor, slum dwellers, waste pickers, outdoor workers, auto-rickshaw drivers, street vendors, and construction laborers,” said Avinash Chanchal, campaign manager, Greenpeace India.
“They don’t receive any allowance for work absence when their work is halted due to air pollution. Moreover, expensive solutions like air purifiers remain unaffordable for them. They remain invisible in urban spaces. The current transport related infrastructure does not support them. Expensive metro services make things worse for them. We need to make our clean air action plan more equitable and just for the urban poor community. The plan should have special funding, and provision to support the urban poor community during air pollution crisis. Policymakers must recognize that people occupy center stage in our cities, and all plans should prioritise their needs,” he added.
Akash Vashishtha, environmentalist, said the policy measures taken by state to curb pollution is arbitrary for homeless and marginalized section and could be termed a national emergency.“Right to life and liberty is the fundamental right of all citizens. Unfortunately, the state has failed to provide this in terms of clean environment to all. Construction workers lose their livelihood when GRAP stages are imposed. Those who live on the streets are at greater odds. When they burn objects to keep themselves warm, they are labeled as polluters. They inhale vehicular emissions directly. Why can’t the state open shelters to them which are only provided only during bone-chilling winters,” he asked.“Affordable housing policies and efforts to place people experiencing homelessness in housing, they say, may do much more to protect a vulnerable population from an environmental hazard,” he added.