Suffocating Childhood in Cities

By: Taru Jain

Assistant Professor, School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. PhD Researcher, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.


hazy city makes a lazy city: Smog over Delhi (Source: Google images)


Deadly pollution levels and their impact on public health, especially the impacts on children, have become dinner table conversation these days. Most parents in Delhi, for a fleeting moment while nursing their children with persistent pulmonary problems, would have contemplated moving out of Delhi. Those with deeper pockets are somewhat relieved that air purifiers and air-conditioned cars can create little islands of ‘pure air’. However, there is much more we are losing in this futile attempt to protect the children. First of all, studies have shown that air-conditioned spaces such as cars also have a higher concentration of fumes. Sorry for breaking the bubble (pun intended)! Secondly, what is more harmful for children? Breathing gallons of toxic air or staying cooped up in air conditioned spaces for years; forgoing outdoor sports, being stuck to screens and not even knowing what the seasons feel like. It is ironic that while the visibility on our streets and parts withers away with plumes of smog, televisions and ipads become HD and UltraHD. As a parent I often felt that I was raising my child ‘caged’ instead of ‘free range’.  This may sound morbid, but have you noticed how young kids know every ‘angry bird’ but may not be able to distinguish between a goraiya and a maina, the local birds.

It is unfortunate that rising car mobility has increased adult freedom but with that, freedom available to children has gone down considerably. Children are manipulated to fit into an adult world and their movement is often curtailed to protect them. With cities growing in size and becoming more complex, travel to school is no more as simple as running across the neighborhood. The journey to school is the most common trip that a child makes everyday over a course of fifteen years. The nature of this trip would undoubtedly make a notable impact on the mental and physical health of a child. It is not just about going out everyday but this trip should allow children to explore, enjoy the surroundings, indulge in some physical activity and gradually become more independent. Unfortunately, several studies conducted across the world have hinted at an increase in motorization of school trips, either using the private vehicles or with buses.

Anecdotal evidence in Indian families will also reveal how grandparents would run to their schools as children or parents used to take giddy bicycle rides as children. This is unthinkable in Delhi now.  Indian cities have seen rapid motorization since the 1980’s. Average trip lengths have increased manifold with cities sprawling horizontally. The average trip length of Delhi was 5.4 kilometres in 1970, 8.5 kilometres in 1993 and may as well be in the range of 12-15 kilometres today. The traditional mixed-use pattern of cities has been replaced by segregated land use pattern, which has increased physical separation between facilities, contributing to increase in average travel distances. Most of the investment in transportation is going into making traffic continuous, free flow while the streets are losing their livability and human scale. While this has serious repercussions on all users, children being more vulnerable are the first to be affected and their travel needs need to be recognized and addressed. On one hand, over 1400 new vehicles are being added onto Delhi’s streets every day, shooting pollution levels several times over the safe limits. On another, the sprawl in the city, facilitated by cars, is increasing average travel distances, including that for school trips. Increased school travel distance not only means more congestion and more pollution but also higher exposure of children to a stressful and polluted environment.

There are two distinct problems in the context of journey to school. While the current discourse is mainly revolving around pollution and its impact on children, we also need to address that Delhi kids travel far too much to reach their schools. As per Delhi Master Plan, most of the residential planning in Delhi has been done on the basis of neighbourhood planning concept. This means that ideally most of the post independence residential development would have an even distribution of educational facilities. Unfortunately, this is where the stark economic differences of our society came into play.  Significant difference in the quality of public and private schools has meant that parents demand ‘choice’.  Hence, children are shipped off daily to the most prestigious school they can afford and are sometimes forced to spend hours on the road. Time, which could have been spent on a playground, is spent becoming traffic and being a victim of it.

Unfortunately, unlike western countries like USA, Germany and Netherlands requiring children be sent to schools close to their homes, the points based admission system in Delhi gives equal weightage to all children within seven kilometres of the school. There needs to be a systemic change involving formulation of school siting principles, rethinking on school admission procedure and sustained efforts to maintain quality of education in all public and private schools. As per the Delhi Statistical Handbook, in 2013 there was only one school for about 800 students in Delhi. We need schools, good quality schools, well distributed across the city and well connected by safe walking and cycling routes to the neighbouring community. The current points based admission system could probably be tweaked to give more points based on proximity to school, rather than a flat score for everyone within seven kilometers. This will not only save unnecessary travel and pollution exposure for children but also reduce the number and length of school trips.

Pollution is a battle Delhi is losing minute by minute. It is unfortunate how grossly this issue was politicized last month and eventually the demand for clean air lost steam as demonetization hit the country. Circa 2014, in an international conference organized by a leading international university in Delhi, a Member of Parliament from the current ruling party dismissed the pollution issue as ‘propaganda’. Circa 2016, air thick with toxic smog, eyes burning and the vulnerable gasping for every breath. Our state and central governments are embroiled in a distasteful debate about the source of pollution. Fumes from AAP’s Delhi or crop fires from BJP rules states. Policymaking needs to be steered by scientific enquiry and it is a pity that it failed to be so. It is unfortunate that in Delhi, it is neither the government, nor the academia but the judiciary which initiated action.

Reducing pollution is not impossible. In the 1960’s Los Angeles residents used to breathe the dirtiest air in the world. Over the past 20 years, air quality has dramatically improved by cutting down on vehicle emissions by employing a mix of regulatory measures and technological improvements. Beijing also reported a significant drop in pollution earlier this year with closure of several polluting industries and move to electric vehicles supported by robust monitoring systems to manage exposure. A UNICEF study has highlighted how countries across the world are fighting against pollution. Curitiba, Singapore, Japan and Indonesia have employed high density transportation network to reduce auto trips. Brazilian farmers leave crop residue on the field as fertilizer, instead of burning it. Mexico and several European Union countries have moved to low Sulphur and Lead free fuel. Countries such as USA, UK and Brazil have stringent air quality standards. Closer home, in Bangladesh achieved a 67.2 percent decrease in PM10 by upgrading the city’s brick kilns. Some of these solutions have come from developing countries like us.

We need to answer the key question- what is more important? Health or everything else? It is immensely hard but not impossible to give our children cleaner air and a liveable city. If others have done it, so can we. The city needed a comprehensive action plan yesterday and a great time to start would be now.

(views are of the author)


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