Indian Experts Addresses Importance of Clean Air for Babies and Toddlers as Part of the Bernard van Leer Foundation’s Urban95 Global Convening


India: The Bernard van Leer Foundation, an independent foundation working towards early childhood development, organised a convening on the importance of clean air to support healthy early childhood development. The India event was an extension of the Foundation’s Urban95 Global Convening that brings together a diverse range of people from the early childhood field and beyond to make new connections and generate practical ideas.

The Urban95 Global Convening’s India Sessions were conducted in collaboration with the Clean Air Fund and the World Resources Institute India.

The Urban95 India event brought together government officials, urban practitioners, and other experts in the fields of city planning, urban design and planning, construction, air quality, health, and early childhood development to share knowledge, learnings, and ideas for how Indian cities can take action towards cleaner air for the healthy development of babies and toddlers.

As part of the Nurturing Neighbourhoods Challenge, activities conducted prior to the convening focused on supporting cities to practice measuring and mapping street-level urban air quality through handheld tools and mobile devices. The convening served as forum to facilitate the exchange of learnings, knowledge and ideas between peer cities and sector experts to catalyse more focused attention on air quality data collection and management.

Many cities, including Pune, Udaipur, Kohima, and Surat, participated in the Urban95 India Convening. During the event, four cities from India – Indore, Rourkela, Vadodara, and Kakinada – shared their experiences and learnings from mapping air quality at 95cms to replicate the breathing height of a young child.

In India in 2019, nearly 1.5 lakh children below the age of five died of lower respiratory infections (LRIs) primarily caused by poor air quality. More than 90 per cent of them were infants, less than a year old. Exposure to unhealthy air in the first 1,000 days of life are particularly dangerous as during this time children’s bodies are growing and their organ systems are moving through complex developmental processes that can be easily disrupted.

Through the data collection exercise, cities observed that the change in concentration of pollutants is highly dependent on nearby activities and the surrounding infrastructure, demonstrating the need for more hyperlocal and concentrated monitoring of air quality. Measuring concentrations separately at the heights of young children and adults helped to establish an understanding that young children are exposed to the pollutants differently, as they move and play closer to the ground, and helped participants to identify sources depending on the context. Cities spoke about emerging solutions, including more widespread and systematic monitoring of air quality, particularly in areas where there are high concentrations of young children, as well as reducing emissions through waste recycling, creation of more green spaces, real-time communication of air quality to citizens.

The data was collected at pilot project sites proposed under the Nurturing Neighbourhoods Challenge, which are frequented by children and their caregivers. These include transit stops, Anganwadis, primary health centres (PHCs), parks and public open spaces. Measurements were recorded at different times and on different days to reveal temporal variations in air quality. City officials, with the support of WRI India, monitored, measured and analysed air quality data, before discussing potential solutions at the Urban95 India convening.

Quote from Kunal Kumar, Joint Secretary and Mission Director (Smart City Mission), MoHUA said, “With 25 Indian cities plus lighthouse cities such as Pune and Udaipur implementing pilot projects to improve access to Anganwadis, public health centres, and maternity hospitals for young children and their caregivers, there is an opportunity for coordinated efforts to measure, monitor and improve air quality around such facilities. A growing number of Indian cities are leveraging low-cost monitors and other available technology to fill gaps in hyperlocal air quality data. This can guide targeted actions to reduce exposure to air pollution in the neighbourhood spaces where young children and their families are most likely to be present, shaping healthier environments for early childhood development.”

Rushda Majeed, India Representative, Bernard van Leer Foundation, said: “Air quality is one of greatest challenges of our times. In infants, the impact is even more detrimental as it affects both their brain and physical development and can have an adverse lifelong impact. The objective of Urban95 Global Convening and the India session was to bring to the front and centre of health, policy, early childhood, and urban debates the importance of clean air for babies and toddlers, and facilitate the exchange of learnings, knowledge, and ideas among cities to improve air quality. We are thankful to our esteemed panellists, partners, industry leaders, and cities who shared their insights and solutions for a healthy future for all kids.”

Reecha Updhyay, Head of India Programme, Clean Air Fund said, “Dirty air impacts us all, but babies and children are hit the hardest and it puts their health and development at risk. Air pollution is a major crisis that cuts across early childhood development, public health, climate, and inequality. Current funding levels are less than 1 per cent of all aid funding which doesn’t match up to the scale of the problem or reflect the opportunities that investing in clean air offers to improve lives.”

Ajay Nagpure, Head – Air Quality, WRI India said, “About 90 per cent of Indian children breathe toxic air every day, responsible for serious health damage. Every year, air pollution is killing more than 15 lakh children in India. We need to understand that children are not small adults; they face special risks from air pollution because their lungs are still growing. As responsible citizens, we all need to work together to provide our children safe and healthy air.”