( By Radhika Ramasubban, Bhanwar Singh & Nigel Crook )

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Rita And Pintoís Challenge

How Air Pollution Aggravates Chest Diseases

Pinto gave up his mill job in Lalbaug. It did not earn good wages. He looked for a job in a large company, and eventually was fortunate enough to get a job in a company to join others engaged in the packaging of Ď Moonlight Soapí at Vikhroli. The wages were quite good, and the atmosphere in the warehouse where he worked driving a forklift truck was quite clean. He was pleased not to be in Lalbaugh although he missed Bahadur and his friends there. He heard from his workmates one day that the soap was not actually made in the factory but in numerous small workshops in Kurla and other places. As he now lived in Kurla he thought he would go and see for himself. He was amazed by what he was.

There was a line of small huts along the road by the slum where he now lived. Four or five women worked side by side in each hut. He spoke to one of them whose name was Rita.

" I work in Vikhroli where they load this soap into trucks for distribution. Itís a nice airy place. I never realised the soap was being made in these stuffy smoky huts. " It was unbearably hot and the sweat began to roll down his face. Rita coughed loudly and then replied, " These small workshops are often much filthier than the big factories. Thatís why I have this dreadful cough. The doctor says itís bronchitis and itíll never get better as long as I live and work continuously in this smoke. "

"Whatís that, you live here also 1" exclaimed Pinto. "Of course," replied Rita, "where else ? With my sisters and brother. With the smoke and dust all the day, and the stench from that filthy nullah behind us all the night, " She coughed again and looked up with a grin. " I live quite close by also," said Pinto. "I also get the stench from that nullah. "

"Everything goes in it, thatís why, " Rita went on, " all the waste from the workshops all down the road, and itís used as the toilet as well. Then everyone throws paper and plastic bags into it. They stay there for ever so the waste cannot even flow away. It is easy to laugh at the stupidity of it all !"

"That is true," said Pinto, " But it would be better to do something about it," "I have been thinking the same myself," said Rita. "WE women have to endure these conditions all day. Those who go off to the big factories like the one you describe are lucky to escape this filth at least for a while. Those of us living here for twenty four hours a day are in fact worse off. "

"Let us at least do something about this nullah," said Pinto. If we arranged for bins to be placed at the end of the lane, we might persuade people to put their litter in those instead of the nullah."

"We need two bins," Rita said, "one for paper and the other garbage and one for plastic. " "Why ?" asked Pinto. "Because the plastic lasts for ever ; it needs to be sorted seperately. Plastic bags are very dangerous for small children."

" Good. I think we can get something done, " said Pinto, " and after that weíll do something about the working conditions." Rita and Pinto grinned at each other.

It was now six months after Pinto and Rita had first met at the workshop in Kurla. After some hard work talking to their neighbors they had formed a group and approached their Municipal Corporator. He had liked their idea for it gave him a chance to show he was in the forefront of the anti-pollution movement. The bins had been installed in several lanes, and one of them was kept seperately for plastic waste. It was late afternoon and Pinto and Rita were taking tea at the shop by the main road.

Rita coughed and said, " Now that we have achieved one thing we must tackle the other problems. People must understand that their coughs and chest disease are not just accidental things over which they have no control. They must see for themselves that a smoky atmosphere makes them far worse - then they may feel inclined to take steps to make the atmosphere cleaner like ... refusing to work in stuffy workshops ... demanding installation of a fan ... "


Diseases of the chest and lungs are made far worse by dust and smoke in the atmosphere. Many industries get most of their manufacturing done in small huts which are both workplace and homes for the workers. Typically women work in these conditions, where industrial wastes of all sorts accumulate in the air and water. That is why in some slum pockets women have higher incidence of disease than men.

One particular waste that is becoming increasingly noticeable in Bombay is plastic, particularly plastic bags. Plastic bags can cause suffocation if your children play with them; they let off toxic fumes if burnt ; and they do not perish on their own like other garbage ( they are non-bio-degradable). Therefore all plastic wastes should be kept in separate bins.

"It isnít only inside the workshops that the air is bad, " said Sadasiv who worked at the Sri Krishna Chemical Fertiliser Plant in Chembur. "Where I work thereís always a haze in the sky. It comes from the chimneys. You donít really notice it at the time, but then you get this thick feeling in your throat in the evening. It must be doing harm. Lots of the men have coughs. "

"There was a gas leak there the other day, " said another customer at the teashop; "thatís what the newspaper said. " Sadasiv laughed.

"There is often a nasty smell of gas down there. We must be breathing it all the time. Only when it gets worse people notice for a while. Or when thereís a big accident, like at Bhopal. But really we have chest problems all the time, and some of the men have died. "

"Nobody seems to think that the polluted environment is to blame," said Pinto. " But all these hazards must be contributing Smoke from the factories, fumes from the road, stuffiness inside the workshop." "Letís try and get the people who live and work in this slum more involved, " said Rita enthusiastically.

"O.K." agreed Pinto. "Whatís your idea ?" "First we should get them thinking about these things, " she said. "Lets get some of the school children and tell them to go round from door to door. They can make a record of what occupation people have and where they work. They can also record if they have any health problems, like bronchitis. Then we can show how the women who work in the soap-making workshops all have coughs. We can ask some of the women to join in making the records. "

"This sounds like a good idea, " said Pinto. " The people who live in this slum can even write a booklet about themselves, their health, and their environment. Perhaps that will stir them into action - to face the authorities with facts and figures. " He paused for a moment. "I think I should find out more about these scientific things myself, " he added. The evening had come and Rita rose from her bench. Pinto watched as she hurried back to the workshop, her long hair blowing in the evening breeze.

A few weeks later a voluntary organisation called the Bombay Health Collective was holding a meeting on the environment, at Kalina. Pinto had decided to attend . Dr . Naik, secretary of the organisation, was speaking.

"The residents of Chembur feel they have suffered too much already. Not only is there so much dirt in the atmosphere, but there are poisonous chemicals too. They are approaching the Municipal Corporation to bring in stricter pollution controls on factories operating nearby. "

The Professor of Social Medicine at Cooper Hospital was also present at this meeting.


People should be encouraged to learn that they can have control over their bodies and their health, over their health services and their environment.

A good practical way for a community to start on this self-education and collective action is to carry out a survey in its own slum. School-going children are often good at starting this, then others can be encouraged to join in. They should go around each household, an record the occupations of each member and any illnesses they have suffered from recently. They can also record the quality and size of hut in which they live. They can note down how close is the nearest water tap, and toilet ( if any). They can even write a little booklet describing their slum and giving its history. This way people working together to make a record of their community may become motivated to take up some projects for improvement --- to request the Municipal Corporation for better facilities, to demand better services at the clinics, and to campaign for better working conditions in the local workshops. This method of self-motivation by making a community survey has been successful in slums elsewhere.

"The problem is not restricted to Chembur, " he said. "In the day-time the breeze from the sea keeps the polluted air over Chembur, but at night there is a breeze off the land, and that moves the polluted air over to the island city. Actually, Lalbaug is the most polluted locality in Bombay. People suffer from chest diseases as much in the inner city as elsewhere. But some occupational groups are probably worse affected than others. "

Then Mr. Shah from the Association of Merchants broke in ; "If the Municipal Corporation makes it too costly for industry to come to Bombay, with pollution taxes and all, business which is the very life-blood of Bombay will be lost. Jobs will be lost. What then ?"

"Surely pollution controls should be imposed everywhere," said Dr.Naik, "then Bombay will not be disadvantaged. Wherever industry locates its factories there should be restriction on emission of waste into the atmosphere and water. Why should factories leave Bombay and be allowed to pollute the atmosphere in some other towns like Dahanu instead ?"

"Then it is a matter for the Government," said Mr. Shah, "not the Municipal Corporation. I think your residents at Chembur are wasting their time. I am sure the Government is taking care that pollution remains within acceptable levels. "


Pollution of the air has many sources. In addition to the atmosphere inside factories and workshops, the air outside is filled with particles of dirt and chemicals from factory chimneys. Sometimes poisonous gases also leak from factories. Although all these wastes in the air lead to sickness and even death ( when they interact with viruses or bacteria in the lungs and chest , or when the body is already weak from chronic disease or poor nutrition), too little is being done to improve the situation. Only when a disaster strikes, like the gas leak at Bhopal, do the authorities take notice for a while. The air is also polluted by motor vehicle fumes ; these contain poisonous materials like lead.

Statistics show that the air over the island city is the most polluted of all as it receives the factory smoke from Chembur when the wind comes from the east at night. Mortality from bronchitis and chest conditions is much the same in all parts of the city.

But improvements can be made. Many new factories have anti-pollution devices fixed in their chimneys. This can be profitable as it enables the recovery of valuable materials like mercury. But old factories and small workshops are less likely to be improved.

If more use were made of public transport and less of private motor cars, pollution of the roads would be reduced. There are many conflicting interests in pollution control. One has to understand clearly who gains and who suffers from a polluting activity before one can get together the right people to bring pressure for pollution controls.

"I think there might be some slight disagreement between the Government and the Municipal Corporation on this point, " said Dr. aik. " The Government is prepared to restrict the growth of polluting industry in Bombay, but the Corporation wants to attract business to come there. "

"There is no disagreement, " said Mr.Shah.

"Technically it is possible to design factories that donít pollute, " said the Professor, " and this method should be the aim from now on. Studies have shown that the dust in the Bombay atmosphere is well above satisfactory levels. We all suffer, all classes of people."

"But the poor, badly -housed, and under-nourished are more likely to suffer from a crippling disease as a result, " Dr. Nail added.

"Polution-free factories are already coming ," said Mr. Shah; "our new fertiliser plants are designed to be pollution-free. "

"Sometimes it is even profitable to design factories that do not throw out substances like carbon or mercury into the atmosphere," said Dr. Naik." These dangerous substances are valuable to industry and can be re-cycled profitably if they are not allowed to escape. But not all antipollution measures are privately profitable to the industrialist ; especially in the older factories. Hence the question of social needs cannot simply be left to the industrialist. Government has to intervene. "

"Why does everyone blame industrial for everything?" complained Mr. Shah ; "people get lung and chest diseases because they smoke." "Certainly there are many causes, " said the Professor. "One of the most important is exhaust from motor vehicles. This contains poisonous substances including lead. "

"There must be a solution to this problem also," said DR. Naik. "If private cars were allowed restricted movement in the island city and more buses were provided instead, there would be less exhaust. "

"Car-owners would not like that, " said Mr. Shah. "That is true," replied Dr. Naik, "but sometimes they will have to think of the common good. As the professor said, everyone suffers from pollution, even the car-owners themselves."

Pinto found he could not concentrate on this discussion anymore. He began to dream of Rita instead. He decided to meet Dr. Naik alone on some future occasion.

Pinto met Dr. Naik soon after the meeting . It was a friendly and frank conversation.

"The trouble is, " said Dr. Naik, " that none of these big people who talk at that meeting are really speaking the truth from their hearts They have to protect this or that institution and this or that interest.

That is the problem with the pollution question. It is not just a question of scientific knowledge. So many different groups in society are involved. Industrialists have one view, middle-class consumers have another, factory workers are concerned about one thing, slum dewellers about another. "

"Then what can your organisation do ?" asked Pinto. "We take up the concern of a particular social group, like the slum dwellers for example. Then we try to provide them with the information they need so that they can campaign from a position of strength. They can only persuade government or authorities if they also know the facts, and the counter arguments. Then they are fully prepared. "

"I think your organisation and some of our slum colony members should get together and work together, " said Pinto. " I know one other person who would be eager to take part in this, " he added thoughtfully, " in a few weeks time she will be my wife. "

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