The Detrimental Effects of Air Pollution in South Asia

By Prarthana Biswas

In the present day, South Asia is most commonly associated with overpopulation, third world countries, and air pollution. But did you know that these characteristics are all related to each other? India, a country known for its diverse cultures and multiple ethnicities, has the 5th worst air pollution ranking and is the 2nd most populated country in the world. Its neighbor, Bangladesh, also has a high air pollution rating (ranked 1st) and a high population (8th most populated). Their capital cities, New Delhi, India and Dhaka, Bangladesh, are the top two polluted in the world. Besides their pollution and population, India and Bangladesh’s exploitation is also prevalent. In fact, it’s the prime cause of their pollution. Although Dhaka is most dangerously affected by the textile industry from water pollution, it is still impacted by the release of carbon, dust, smog, and other gaseous substances.  Bangladesh is home to thousands of sweatshops for garment factories and many of them are unregulated and have horrific working conditions. There are 3.5 million Bangladeshi workers for these garment factories and they only make 3,000 taka ($35.40 USD) a month, which is not enough for a standard lifestyle that consists of food, healthcare, and shelter. The type of people working in these sweatshops are mainly female; in fact, 85% of the workforce for the textile industry accounts for women, and studies show that approximately 15% of women in similar countries work in the garment industry from ages 16-30(UNICEF and War on Want – Activism for Global Justice).

Although air pollution harms our planet, it also places a heavy burden on the health of those who are impacted by it. The World Health Organization believes reducing air pollution can lessen stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, as well as chronic and acute respiratory diseases. According to the National Institute of Diseases of Chest and Hospital (NIDCH), nearly seven million people in Bangladesh suffer from asthma, more than half of them are children. Realizing the detrimental effects of air pollution on the lives of daily citizens is one way to persuade industries, such as the garment industry, to adjust their methods to better suit the environment. To better understand the circumstances of the countries, I conducted interviews with citizens from Bangladesh and India. P. Rai, a Literature Professor at the University of Chittagong, says, “It’s always dusty on the roads and many of my students have developed asthma as well as coughing hazards from traveling to the class.” Mr. Rai commutes to the campus daily from his home via auto-rickshaw, commonly known as CNG’s in Bangladesh due to their main fuel source: Compressed Natural Gas. This gas was introduced to combat air pollution, for CNG lowers air pollutant emissions. In India, B. Musa, a government worker in the city of Kolkata, experiences similar dust problems found in Bangladesh, such that he frequents the doctor often. “The clinic has become my second home. The doctor and I even go by a first-name basis now”, Musa laughingly tells us. It is unfortunate that such conditions have become normalized for citizens. Both Musa and Rai are local citizens of their respective countries but they have been victimized by climate change. “I do not want my children to experience this as they grow up”, Rai voices as the father of two. “My daughter will be turning 2 very soon and I always live in the fear of her health collapsing just from playing outside,” Musa says. 

That being said, with such a growing awareness of climate change, governments of such developing countries have not been blind to air pollution. The Bangladeshi Government negotiated with the World Bank for $62 million USD to the CASE (Clean Air and Sustainable Environment) Project which aims to improve air quality as well as create cleaner energy-efficient technology. Furthermore, the Department of Environment signed an agreement with the Norwegian Institute of Air Research (NILU) that will provide Bangladesh 1.3 million USD for air quality research. However, the government does not acknowledge the mistreatment of employees under the industries that cause the growing air pollution the same way. There have been many uprisings about this issue, but they all result in little to no achievements. Back in December 2016, 1,500 garment workers went on a week-long strike, fighting for wages that are at least triple the amount they received. Hundreds of workers walked out of their factories in protests to show their discontent with the working conditions as well as wages. Instead of receiving support and a helpful compromise, the workers were shot with rubber bullets by the police force, for protests which were deemed illegal. Countries like Bangladesh continue to fight for better working conditions to not only satisfy their survival needs but also to help their ecosystems and homes. (The Guardian)

Although Bangladesh’s economy has improved with such garment factories, its air pollution has risen as well. Citizens of the country feel the need to ensure their safety, including working conditions that help them as well as the reduction of air pollution. Although there are multiple proposed solutions by environmentalists and scientists, there are certain measures that we, as the common folk, can take (Stockholm Environment Institute). As global citizens, it is important to understand how we can commit to the cause of climate change and figuring out how to reduce its effects. Some ways we can do so is reducing our plastic bag usage and wasting as little water as possible. There are multiple other ways we can counter climate change by researching specific ways we can help using resources like The Natural Resources Defense Council


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