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Air pollution's unseen victims

July 24, 2023
topic:Air Pollution
tags:#India, #air pollution, #women's rights, #gender equality
by:Aman Singh
Women construction workers in India are demanding clean air and safe working conditions. But is anyone listening?

Ram Bharosi, a sixty-year-old resident of New Delhi, has been supporting her family by enduring the inhalation of dangerously high levels of toxic fumes. As a construction worker since 1984, she has experienced a range of health problems including skin rashes, irritated eyes and respiratory issues. But the situation has further deteriorated in recent years.

"While working, I did not realise that the cement, the chemicals and the fumes were heavily impacting my health," Bharosi told FairPlanet. "Recently, I was diagnosed with a severe case of kidney stone that put me on bedrest and unemployed for two years."

According to the World Air Quality report published by IQAir in 2022, New Delhi was ranked as the second-worst city in the world in terms of average PM 2.5 concentration (µg/m3). It also found air pollution to be the second-largest health risk after malnutrition in the Indian capital. 

Particulate matter, commonly referred to as PM, is one of the primary contributors to air pollution. It encompasses solid or liquid substances that remain suspended in the air, such as dust, dirt or soot. The term "PM 2.5" specifically refers to the size of the pollutant particles, which measure 2.5 micrometers or smaller in diameter. These toxic PM 2.5 particles, being less than 2.5 microns in size, can pose serious health risks, including life-threatening diseases like cancer and cardiac problems.

The risky nature of this phenomenon becomes even more perilous for women, particularly those coming from socially and economically marginalised backgrounds, who typically have increased vulnerability to toxic fumes. This can result from a combination of factors including gender stereotypes, biological needs and inequitable workspaces. 

Even after fully recovering from her kidney stones episode, Bharosi continues to suffer from recurring stomach aches and breathing problems. "It feels as if I take loads of dirt and pollutants home with me," she said.

Silent suffering

With a significant population of women workers, the construction industry has been reeling from the adverse effects of air pollution in India. In May 2022, a Delhi-based survey jointly conducted by Purpose India and the Mahala Housing Trust (MHT) found that 75 per cent of women construction workers  in the city felt sick or uncomfortable when air pollution levels were high. But 94 per cent of the women affected never spoke up or took steps to address the issue out of fear of losing their jobs, the survey concluded. 

Several factors contribute to the worsening air quality in New Delhi including construction dust and emissions from factories, vehicular emissions and biomass, among others. But it becomes almost impossible to breath in the capital between October and November, when the burning of crop stubble by farmers in the neighbouring agricultural states of Punjab and Haryana makes the air thick with smoke.

Speaking to FairPlanet, Veena Bharadwaj, a programme coordinator at MHT, said, "Women workers are the main contributors to the informal economy. For them, livelihood is their main concern. But they do not realise [that while] working in the open sun amidst heat waves and air pollution, their productivity and health are also affected."

"These women, after working at construction sites, also do household chores, cook food for the family and hardly get any time for sleep and rest," she added. "Additionally, they also suffer from indoor pollution. It is a double whammy."

Cooking is considered to be the main cause of indoor air pollution, according to a study published by the Hygiene and Environmental Health Advances journal in March this year. 

What current policy fails to address

Rita Devi, a 35-year-old construction worker from New Delhi was six months pregnant when she spoke with FairPlanet. "It is my third child. I have been dealing with chronic cough and congestion. The doctor has advised me to stay home, but if I were to relax at home, who would bring food for the night?

"My two children have also been sick, as I used to bring them [ to the construction site]. I do not have money to get my children treated or even give birth to this new one," Devi added while climbing up a three-story building under construction in the Bakkarwala district of New Delhi.

Pallavi Pant, a senior scientist at the Health Effects Institute - a US-based non-profit, explained the untoward effects of air pollution on women's reproductive health to FairPlanet. "Pregnant women exposed to high air pollution can also experience gestational diabetes, preeclampsia and the new-borns can be born too small or too early."

While air pollution continues to take a disproportionate toll on women’s health, current Indian policy does not address the gendered aspect of the problem. Even in India’s National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) neither gender nor caste are mentioned.

NCAP was launched in 2019 by India's Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) with the aim to reduce PM concentrations in the country by 20 to 30 per cent by 2024. As part of the programme, the government undertook various emergency, measures to tackle air pollution including setting up inter-departmental vigilance teams and halting construction projects and industrial activities.

"Recent work is beginning to include gender in the air pollution discourse, but we are not yet seeing gender as a focus for air quality decision-making," Pant said. 

Highlighting the reasons for this lacuna, she added, "Women may not even be adequately represented in spaces or have a voice where decisions related to air quality management and air pollution are made. This can range from household decisions on the type of fuel to use for cooking or policy measures and actions."

Community-led efforts 

Recognising the rising risk posed by air pollution, especially for vulnerable groups, various community interventions have been launched nationwide. These initiatives aim to empower women construction workers by providing them with resources, training and the ability to advocate for clean air and secure working environments.

The Mahila Housing Trust (MHT), for instance, helped many of these women become ‘AQI ambassadors' whose job is to raise public awareness about air pollution through murals, posters, street plays and other creative means.

"We started monitoring the construction sites through air quality monitors. We also told them to take precautions, ask the contractors to give the workers gloves, masks or sprinkle water on sites," Veena Bharadwaj from MHT said. "These women are now leading the change in spreading the message forward."

With access to portable AQI devices, the women can now report the pollution levels in their area and share information about hazardous air quality at their workspaces. 

Speaking to FairPlanet, a construction worker at Gokulpuri in Delhi who chose to be anonymous said that she had learnt to use the Green Delhi app, through which she reports air pollution levels to the authorities. 

The Green Delhi app was launched by the Delhi government for citizens to report pollution-related incidents to the government. According to official figures, the app received 20,000 registered complaints in March 2021, and 40,000 by March 2022.

Calling the application "elitist," Bhavreen Kandhari, a spokesperson of the Warrior Moms collective, told FairPlanet: "We cannot expect construction workers to be technology literate to be using such applications for filing the complaints. Most of them are not literate enough to read or write, you cannot expect them to benefit from these apps."

In 2022, ‘Warrior Moms’ filed an online petition signed by 1,000 women demanding that the minister of environment, Bhupendra Yadav, address the rising health issues caused by air pollution from Thermal Power Plants (TPP) across India. 

Earlier, the collective also wrote to the Delhi government demanding clean air for children and women from all walks of life. Operating as a civil movement, Warrior Moms has been advocating for and organising women and mothers to tackle the challenges caused by air pollution.

"Women construction workers deal with several challenges posed by the lack of effective policy making and SOPs at their work sites," Kandhari added. "As a community, we can spread preventative knowledge around, but the larger accountability of addressing this problem rests with the government."

Image by Ninara.

Article written by:
aman final
Aman Singh
Embed from Getty Images
"While working, I did not realise that the cement, the chemicals and the fumes were heavily impacting my health," Ram Bharosi.
Embed from Getty Images
New Delhi was ranked as the second-worst city in the world in terms of average PM 2.5 concentration (µg/m3) in 2022.
Embed from Getty Images
A 2022 survey by Purpose India and Mahala Housing Trust (MHT) found that 75% of construction women in New Delhi felt sick or uncomfortable when the air pollution was high in the city. 94% of them never officially reported their conditions, fearing they would lose their jobs.
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