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Kids carrying balloons walk along a busy street with other vendors
Indore, India

Air in India's Cleanest City Is Hazardous to the Health of Children

We met Arjun (name changed), about 10-12 years old, selling hawa mithai (sweets) and small toys in the busiest Rajwada area of ​​Indore, a city that is consistently ranked the cleanest in India. He remains in this old and busy area for about 10 hours a day and sells toys. There is heavy traffic from morning till night.

Arjun doesn't go to regular school and says his family members also set up shop nearby. Passersby can be seen trying to leave the area immediately, coughing in the traffic and dust. The shopkeepers of this area say that they have grown used to it, so it does not affect them. 

Arjun agrees. To him, the bad air doesn't matter and his goods sell well here.

A large number of such "working children" are seen in Indore. One of them, Nitin (name changed), about 14-15 years old, says that he often sneezes and coughs. “There is always dust and smoke around. Breathing in it causes cold and cough,” he says. Other children say that their eyes burn when they stand in traffic, their noses often watery.

Air pollution may not only be affecting the health of children working at the road crossing. For example, months of construction work on Khandwa Road creates dust and smoke from vehicles that affect people in the surrounding areas, especially children. Indore's senior surgeon Dr. Parvinder Lubana, a resident of nearby posh colony Ranibagh, is extremely troubled by the polluted air around him.

"My four- and six-year-old daughters are often falling ill due to cold, cough and fever due to this bad air. Being a senior doctor, I know how badly polluted air affects my daughters," he explains.

A woman with material covering her face tosses gravel onto a road with pedestrians walking in the background
A woman working in road construction shields herself from dust by tying a cloth over her mouth / Credit: Sanjay Gehlod.

The town of Mhow lies a few kilometers away from Indore. Brijesh Ammonia lives in this green and relatively clean area. "The dust and traffic fumes on the roads bother my 13-year-old son," Brijesh says, explaining that colds and coughs are a common problem.

Dr. Ramashish Shukla, who has been posted in the Department of Pediatrics at Madhya Bharat Hospital for the last four years, says that “people do not understand the effects of air pollution, but that does not mean that there is no effect. Many times people complain about cold and cough of their children, but it is not a seasonal disease every time. Often it is also due to pollution. This pollution happens both inside and outside the house."

A little further from Indore—about 35 kilometers away—lies Pithampur Industrial Area. Complaints of air pollution are common there. In fact, people say that it is getting worse. 

Headshot of doctor in a white collared shirt and a stethoscope around his neck
Dr. Salil Bhargava, a specialist in respiratory diseases in Indore, says that children are especially affected by air pollution and related health problems / Credit: Bolta Hindustan.

Dr. Salil Bhargava, a specialist in respiratory diseases in Indore, explains that air pollution, including dust, smoke and gas, affects children more than adults because their respiratory systems are still developing.

He says that the victims of air pollution are more often children who live in polluted or densely populated areas, spending time on the side of busy roads or near construction work or factories.

He adds that air pollution in young children can cause asthma, pneumonia or frequent colds and coughs. It can also be dangerous for the growth of children and make them look younger than their age. According to Dr. Bhargava, frequent runny nose in children is a symptom of pneumonia which impacts their growth. The risk of TB in children also increases due to air pollution.

He says that so far research has not yet focused on this particular issue in Indore, but over time doctors have seen these health problems increase in children and are raising concerns.

Not only children are affected by air pollution; women living in the Rajwada area of ​​Indore also complain about the problem. Reena, who sets up a fruit shop here for 12 hours a day says that she is allergic to dust and her eyes burn and head hurts. 

Another woman selling fruits says that she often starts feeling breathless and gets a cold and cough due to the smoke. A woman sitting in the same queue adds that she is troubled by dust and smoke and falls ill several times a month, with a large part of her monthly income spent on doctors and medicines.

Women fruit vendors sit on pavement surrounded by green and yellow fruits
Women selling fruits and vegetables along the road must breathe in dust and smoke for many hours a day / Credit: Manish Kumar.

Consistently ranked the cleanest city in India, the streets of Indore are constantly cleaned. But these days, on sunny winter mornings when the roads are being cleaned, clouds of dust fly in the air. People have no way to avoid them; a woman worker sweeping the streets says that she breathes in the dust as it is always difficult to work wearing a mask.

Indore's air pollution appears to be a growing problem. According to a recent report by the Union Environment Ministry, Indore is among the 37 cities in the country where air quality has declined between 2017 and 2021. Its impact on people's health is hard to deny.

According to various studies conducted under the Clean Air Catalyst Project, which is being run in collaboration with the U.S. Agency for International Development, Indore's air pollution needs to be addressed so that citizens here can stay healthy.

Kaushik Raj Hazarika, Project Manager, Environmental Defense Fund and Head of the Clean Air Catalyst Program in India, says, “The Indore administration has achieved remarkable success in waste disposal in the city with the cooperation of citizens and sanitation workers. Now the citizens of the city need to be made aware about air pollution and the ill effects of pollutants on health."

Hazarika explains that Clean Air Catalyst has made efforts with the Indore Municipal Corporation to raise awareness about the dangers of air pollution through various workshops and such efforts will continue for those who are at higher risk.

This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Bolta Hindustan in 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: A large number of working children are seen in Indore selling goods / Credit: Sanjay Gehlod.