Go Green

In Indore, Pithampur it’s time to move the needle on fresh air front for migrant workers

By 2050 Madhya Pradesh is predicted to be one of the two climate hotspot states and likely to experience a decline of more than 9% in living standards

Indore/Pithampur/Bhopal: Shiv Prakash Prajapati was devastated when less rainfall thrashed the rabi crops in his farm, leaving the crop to fall prematurely and injury to the grain. The crops stood partially due to lack of water for weeks at Padri Kala village in Unnao district of central Uttar Pradesh. Soon, the stress on the grain became visible. The number of seeds set per spikelet were unable to stand. Prajapati was one among the hundreds of wheat growers in the highly fertile river basin of the Ganges to suffer this plight.

Devastated by climate changes and realising that seeds of wheat spikelet savings won’t be enough to meet the consumption needs for his family, Prajapati accepted the path of migration for economic and social stability. He decided to migrate to a place that could offer a year-round livelihood option with low-cost living. Shiv Prakash reached Indore in 1994–the most populous city and popularly known as Mini Mumbai for connectivity and commercial activity.

It was the same year when the State’s commercial capital hit news headlines for altogether different reasons linked to commercial activity. Residents say, such was the growth prospect. Indore was proposing that it had to implement a ticket system to shoo off purposeless vagabonds chilling in centrally air-conditioned Treasure Island Mall, the first mall of the State.

And one among hundreds who visited the mall with tickets was Prajapati, an industrial worker. It was the period, when Indore’s urban population nearly doubled, in part because migrants devastated by climate change from rural areas were being driven to cities in search of economic and social stability.

Role of migrants in MP’s financial capital

The arrival of migrant workers easily got reflected in the census data of Indore.

In the 2001 census, Indore had a population of 2,465,827. Ten years later, the city had a population of 3,276,697. There was a change of 32.88 percent in the population compared to the population as of 2001. With a population of more than 3.4 million, Indore is the most populous city and the second largest city by area in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and serves as a commercial and industrial hub for the state.

And all this happened when Indore was already struggling to handle its own climate issues. Amidst freshwater scarcity to vehicular congestion on roads, population growth and unplanned expansion made Indore a fast-growing urban center with a diversity of industries, income levels, and health needs.

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Prajapati who works in an aluminium extrusion plant in Indore | Credit: Author

His son, Vishal Prajapati feels that drastic changes in unhealthy air patterns over the last few years are adversely impacting his health. He blames the surroundings and his workplace.

“We live in a congested two-room house in an overcrowded residential area, where 6-7 people live together in poky 100 sq feet dwellings. About 20% of the residents use community toilets. Most people are informal daily-wage workers who don’t cook at home and go out to get their food,” says Vishal who works in an aluminium extrusion plant in Indore.

According to advocate and All India Trade Union Congress [AITUC] Indore district general secretary Rudra Pal Yadav, “the estimated population of migrant labourers in Indore is more than 8 lakhs. Here they primarily work under filthy conditions in pharmaceutical, automobile, real estate, textile trade industrial units and live in homes lining the narrow lanes of the City. Regular health check-ups and safety equipment are not on the priority list of companies and units”.

The situation after Covid has considerably changed in the working class. There is no shortage of labour and the cost of labour is falling in Pardesipura, Bajrang Nagar, Aerodrome Road, Banganga and other odd- 40 centres where labourers assemble every morning to get a day’s work, Yadav said. 

He added, the migrants were found to be one of the most vulnerable groups in this lockdown, as their very livelihood came to a complete standstill. “As many of them were laid off during the downsizing operation, hundreds and hundreds of them are now forced to work in 12-hour shifts for less wages”.

As compared to other labourers, distressed migrant workers are more likely to experience a lack of proper protection at work. They are usually forced to live and work in unsafe conditions in low packages as compared to other workers.

Clean air challenge for Indore

To that end, commercial and industrial hubs work on their economics. They expand to accommodate the ever-increasing population and suck large tracts of rich eco-sensitive zones affecting human life. In the last few years, the same happened with the commercial and industrial hub of the state – Indore and with the industrial belt mostly concentrated at Pithampur. Though, Indore was known for its successful solid waste management campaign and was declared the cleanest city in India for six successive years. However, the city is unable to have made similar progress when it comes to clean air.

In its letter dated 01.07.2016, Central Pollution Control Board identified Indore as a “Non-Attainment City” and issued directions u/s 18(1)(b) of the Air (Prevention & Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 to ensure the time-bound action on various “Action Points”, so as to include the Air quality of Indore to confirm the prescribed standards.

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Pollution flowing in a nullah on the outskirts of Indore. Photo for representation purpose only | Credit: Author

In a way to keep a check on the air quality, Madhya Pradesh Government installed Air Quality Monitors in Indore and Pithampur.

“Air quality monitoring in Pithampur is primarily done in two areas Vikas Bhavan Sector 2, RCC Sector 3 – and in Indore in three areas [Kothari Market – Commercial Area, Sanwer Road – Industrial Area, Vijay Nagar – residential area],” maintains Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board’s annual 2020-21 report citing National Air Monitoring Programme.

“The air pollution data available over the past five years from two manual sites in Indore suggest that PM2.5 concentrations exceed WHO annual average standards of 10 μg/m3 and are increasing,” cites Ajay Nagpure, World Resources Institute and Nivedita Barman, Environmental Defense Fund in research paper ‘Sources of Air Pollution: Indore’.

“The PM2.5 annual averages measured in 2019 at the three manual monitoring sites in Indore (based on measurements made approximately every third day) are all between 36–39 μg/m3. The highest pollution is measured during the post-monsoon season (October, November) and during the winter months (December–February), due in part to lower wind speeds during these months”, the paper noted.

The annual averages measured in 2019 at the two monitoring sites in Pithampur failed to remain in a good category. “The annual averages remained under the satisfactory category”, attributed to the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board’s annual 2020-21 report.

To make it more clear and loud, it means that people are breathing air that has an average concentration of 250 micrograms of PM 2.5 per cubic metre (µg/m3) in a day, according to the AQI-to-concentration converter. PM 2.5 refers to inhalable particulate matter that can enter the bloodstream and has several health impacts. A level of 250 µg/m3 is four times the permissible amount–60 µg/m3 over 24 hours–according to the standards defined by the Central Pollution Control Board.

A recent analysis of 132 cities by the environment ministry shows that Indore is one of 37 cities whose air quality has declined in the past four years. The survey found that the levels of PM10 (inhalable particles with diameters around 10 micrometres) particulate had increased in the city’s air during the period between 2017 and 2021.

Health report of Pithampur- Detroit of India

A similar clock worked for the climate change migrant labourers and their family members in Pithampur – Indore’s closest industrial town.

Referred to as the Detroit of India primarily due to the heavy concentration of the vehicle industry, Pithampur became a breeding ground for farmers who began losing their ability to bear long-term damages done to their crops due to the impact of climate changes. However, the negative trends of distressed migration workers, working in an unhealthy industrial environment significantly affected female workers’ physical health.

“See my hands and the skin. This damage is done because every day for eight hours I used to remain in contact with a powder to polish diamond,” says 29-year-old Komal Warwary, who is no longer a part of the workforce that puts India in the global map, accounting for over 90% of polished diamond manufacturing.

Komal Warwary, who worked in a diamond cutting and polishing unit in Pithampur came in the grip of several physical health problems, particular diseases and allergies due to the work environment and nature of work.

Here, I was handling silica-based slurry, but without gloves and masks to give diamonds a faceted precious look, she said in grief complaining of a regular pain that her stomach carries.

The 29-year-old consulted the doctors in Pithampur and in MY Hospital, the state’s biggest health facility. However, the allergy, itching and dryness seem to be irreparable. 

Born to a family of farm labourers in the village Hirdagarh, in Madhya Pradesh’s Chhindwara district, her father reached Pithampur.

“He regularly talked about crops standing partially up to its size, rotting of wheat spikelets, erratic weather conditions helping pests to breed and new diseases to emerge,” she recalled the words of his father.

The calm, pure and liveable village atmosphere of six family members got replaced by noise and air pollution upon reaching Pithampur in 2001. Here they live in a two-room rented accommodation in Housing Board Colony, where ventilation and fresh air are rare.

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Labour activists Yashwant Paithankar | Credit: Author

According to labour activist Yashwant Paithankar, nearly 1 lakh farmers turned distressed migrant labourers live in Pithampur. “Here, they work under stressful, unhealthy conditions and their children and family members live under unhygienic conditions,” he mentioned.

Like the Warwary family, climate change compounded the financial issue that had been in the making for a long time for the farmers’ son Keshav Rao Mandle.

“Our piece of agricultural land was finding it hard to produce enough food to take care of nine family members. My father, a teacher by profession, had to work in a local grocery shop in our village Prabhat Pattan in the Betul district for financial stability. Occasionally, he worked as a farm labourer as well,” said Keshav Rao Mandle.

With no viable options available to move out from the jaws of poverty, Keshav had to discontinue his studies and joined Industrial Training Institute, a skill development training centre in Govindpura Bhopal to share the financial burden of the family.

The next stage for Keshav was Pithampur. But one of the dangers less known to him was the deadly cocktails of working, living and environmental conditions in the industrial town.

“It is impossible to quantify the actual side effects happening on us. However, what we can assume is that we live in the air that has some dust, soot or chemicals floating in it. People who are inside probably won’t notice it, but I think… we live in filthy air surrounding,” he added.

Studies suggest air pollution exposure is linked to 16 lakh premature deaths in India in 2019.

By the time, the son of Savita Bhargav [name changed on request] started talking, walking and bustling with energy, she started noticing the 2-year-old in trouble breathing, sore throat, cough or just not feeling well.

“When he is in village Babai [house of in-laws in Madhya Pradesh’s Hoshangabad district], he doesn’t remain the same. He feels more energetic and falls less sick in the village as compared to his stay in Pithampur. I am deeply concerned about my pregnancy and have told Babu’s [house name of her son] father to take us back to the village,” said Savita, who came to Pithampur after her marriage in 2015.

Every day around 93% of the world’s children under the age of 15 years (1.8 billion children) breathe air that is so polluted, says a WHO report released in 2018. Tragically, 600,000 children died from acute lower respiratory infections caused by polluted air in 2016, says the report.

As compared to adults, air pollution is especially harmful to infants, toddlers and children. “They breathe more rapidly than adults and so absorb more pollutants, they also live closer to the ground, where some pollutants reach peak concentrations – at a time when their brains and bodies are still developing”, explains Dr Ajay Nagpure of World Resources Institute.

Moreover, their airways are smaller and still developing, thus, particle deposition in both upper and lower airways is the highest in an infant, next in a child, and lowest in an adult, he added.

It is believed that when pregnant women are exposed to polluted air, they are more likely to give birth prematurely, and have small, low birth-weight children. Moreover, air pollution also impacts neurodevelopment and cognitive ability and can trigger asthma, and childhood cancer. Tragically, children who have been exposed to high levels of air pollution may be at greater risk for chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease later in life.

“As compared to the routine population, migrant labourers, their family members and children live in unhealthy conditions. Many of them live in construction sites or in the areas where heavy machinery are in movement. Poor quality of air increases the risk of viral and bacterial infections, and migrant labourers, their family members and children. They are at greater risk of catching viral and bacterial infections. Moreover, breathing polluted air is as bad as smoking tobacco for human health,” says Dr Salil Bhargava, Clean Air Catalyst Advisory Committee and Head, Department of Pulmonology, MGM College points towards a bigger catastrophe for the migrant labourers.

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Hands of Komal with writers hand | Credit: Author

Air for life

A news report published by the national daily Indian Express presents a dark picture by saying patients at India’s premiere health institution All India School of Medical Sciences [AIIMS} patients are rising due to air pollution. Records accessed by The Indian Express show how the number of OPD cases of respiratory ailments at AIIMS has been rising since 2006-07 –to an average of over 100 a day now. It may be noted that AIIMS started a full-fledged respiratory department only in 2013, patients were treated in the chest unit till then.

It also means that the concentration of pollutants in the air “affects healthy people and seriously impacts those with existing diseases”.

According to the report’s analysis, by 2050 Madhya Pradesh is predicted to be one of two climate hotspot states and likely to experience a decline of more than 9% in living standards.

The present scenario portrays a picture where a lot is to be done. Through dialogues with subject experts, public and community representatives the regime is ensuring effective remedial measures to improve the air quality of Indore and its surroundings.

There should be regular checking of pollution levels of commercial vehicles, school buses and other vehicles and PUC centres should be compulsorily set up in all petrol pumps, directed Indore Divisional commissioner Pawan Sharma to officials in a meeting of the Action Plan Implementation Committee for improving the air quality of the city last week. The IMC has decided to replace ‘Alaav’ (bonfire) with electric heaters in major squares of the city during winter.

While the government campaign seems to be functioning, problems persist. “The battle with air for life to me could be long drawn and enervating,” said Komal while showing allergy marks on her hand.


This story has been produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network

Anup Dutta

is a multimedia freelance journalist based in Bhopal. He reports on people, politics, policies, health, art and culture.

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