Ask any Delhi resident these days to describe the city’s summer weather and they will report “scorching hot” conditions, but for those who check their mobile weather app the current conditions reveal a more sinister story that goes well beyond the record-breaking heat.
Dust. Smoke. Haze. These are the words one sees instead of the usual expected adjectives of “cloudy,” “sunny” or “rain” alongside temperatures reading in the 40’s Celsius.
The sky outside doesn’t always reveal the entire story when it comes to the air we are breathing, air that is often filled with tiny, dangerous particles that harm our health, more so to the most vulnerable – children and elderly.
Delhi’s air leaves a lot to be desired. One thing has become apparent after two rounds of odd-even car rationing it’s going to take more than a two week episode of limited car restrictions to clean up our air.
As a mother to three young children, a professional and a person who loves to get off the sofa and get outside to move – Delhi’s air concerns me. A lot. I go to sleep at night and wake up most mornings wondering what outdoor activities we should shorten or reschedule all together. I think twice before opening the windows until I’ve checked my air quality apps to see what air I might be letting into my home. I wonder if it’s just a coincidence that I have nearly year-round allergies and a dry cough after a four decade allergy-free, healthy life. And my heart was shredded when my otherwise uber-healthy eight year-old woke suddenly over recent months with breathing difficulty and had to be started on inhalers.
Short of packing up and leaving town what is one to do? When faced with an obstacle we try to tackle it, or so I was taught from childhood. There is always a solution. So I’ve tried to learn a lot about this
health and environmental emergency. Many solutions are beyond our reach as individual citizens. But
there are, thankfully, some things we can do. Short-term, interim measures we can take to help
safeguard our health, and the health of our children, from air pollution.
1) Check the readings. Download real time air quality apps to monitor hourly readings and even see
forecasts for the next day. Check out: http://safar.tropmet.res.in/ or http://aqicn.org/city/delhi/r.k.-puram/
2) Avoid aerobic activity during the “bad” air times. That typically means early morning and late
afternoon and evenings. Talk to the coach about moving the children’s cricket, tennis or football
practice to late morning timings. Perhaps on weekends and school holidays, a midday indoor AC
environment is better, e.g. ice skating in Gurgaon.
3) Talk to your child’s school. Ask them to monitor air quality both inside the class room and outside.
Then encourage them to adjust outdoor sports and activities to help limit exposure during the bad
air times. Ask them to create “idle-free zones” on the streets outside the school gates to reduce
“pollution hot spots” in the places where the children walk and wait on a daily basis.
4) Look into buying a high quality face mask that filters out dangerous airborne particles for your child. Look for either N95 or N99 rated masks and be sure the fit is secure with no outside gaps to let
outside air in. The gap would negate the positive benefit and protection from the mask by allowing
pollutant particles back in.
5) Consider an indoor HEPA air filter for your home, specifically for your child’s bedroom. This would
ensure 8-10 hours of sleeping time with cleaner air for your little one. There are some great options
on the market from the affordable SmartAir filter at 3,000 rupees to the pricier options from Sharp and BlueAir. Best to look for air cleaning devices with HEPA filters, the only ones that can remove PM 2.5 particles from the air.
My husband and I knew a bit about Delhi’s air pollution problem before we arrived almost two years ago. My husband’s employer told him about it; we read articles in newspapers and talked to friends of ours who were already living in Delhi. So, we felt pretty informed and prepared to face the air pollution when we arrived. What we found was that no one or no article can prepare you for what the air actually smells like and how it will affect your health.
What I found is that out of everyone in my family – my husband and I have two boys – I’m the most sensitive to the air pollution. The first winter in Delhi I fell ill regularly with headaches, dizziness, fatigue and a feeling of “stuff” in my throat that wouldn’t go away no matter how much I swallowed and drank water or tea. I knew that I couldn’t continue living in Delhi feeling ill all the time and so started to research home air purifiers and masks – solutions that I felt were accessible and within my control. I also found out about the air quality index (AQI) websites that report data on the air quality throughout the day.
I quickly outfitted our house with air purifiers because I could sense that the seal around our windows were not air-tight. I could smell the outdoor air coming in and polluting the inside of our house. I also bought masks and wore them whenever I would go outside. Lucky for me, these solutions did work. I definitely could feel the difference. I wasn’t ill as much.
Delhi’s air pollution is bad, shockingly so and it doesn’t seem to be getting much better. Small solutions like home air purifiers and masks are good to protect your health, but now I’m starting to think about the source of the problem. Some may say that we should leave India alone to go through growth, development and industrialization just like the rest of the developed countries when they did it. If we say ok to leaving India alone, then are we also accepting the horribly bad sanitation and hygiene practices, high disease, death rates, poverty and pollution that plagued the era of industrialization? That’s just unacceptable.
Technologies exist. Cleaner fuels exist. Proven practices, strategies and policies exist. In my view, there is nothing holding India back to getting it right now. It’s just a question of citizen awareness and generating political will to mobilize change.
Susan Perez is a global health advocate and activist. While her expertise has primarily been in the areas of HIV, tuberculosis and reproductive health, she has become more interested and concerned about the impact of air pollution on health. Currently Susan runs her own global health consulting firm.
With the onset of summer in Delhi and the hottest months of the year approaching, concerns about air pollution recede into the background. We have other things to worry about – the approaching scorching heat, water and electricity shortages many still face, flies and open piles of rubbish spreading germs; yet air pollution still shrouds us, our invisible, deadly companion.
The problem is no longer as visible, no longer the in-your-face, eye-stinging, throat-inflaming smog we used to kindly - and incorrectly - refer to as the winter fog. Yet it is still present, just less visible.
As I sit and write this the sky looks a lovely shade of blue and PM 2.5 numbers are hovering just below 198 microns per cubic meter, or even up to 290 depending on which monitor one tracks! That is over 20 times more than the “acceptable” exposure of PM 2.5 of 10-15 microns per cubic meter or less deemed ok for humans by the World Health Organization (WHO).
We have become so used to the horrifically polluted, smog-filled days, month after month from October to February, that when we see anything that seems remotely normal and “clear”, we fool ourselves into thinking the problem has also cleared. That somehow, the bad air, full of noxious gases and deadly PM 2.5 has miraculously blown away.
Well, perhaps some of it has, but definitely not all. It’s the same kind of wishful thinking that has us believing that exposure to pollution builds our immunity or that pranayama and yoga asanas will release the toxins from pollution in our bodies. All untrue and recklessly misleading. I am shocked when time and again I see leading health organizations, doctors and RWA’s make these claims. There is no science to support this. Exposure to air pollution kills in the long term, and creates health problems in the short term.
Air pollution is undoubtedly the major health and environmental issue of our time. It is not only a Delhi issue, but a national emergency. The World Health Organization’s 2014 study of 1,600 cities across 91 countries found 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India; and six of the remaining seven are in our backyard (Pakistan and Bangladesh). Honors no one would desire or hold with pride.
Here in Delhi, talk of air pollution finally gained some ground this past winter. The media covered the problem extensively. Politicians tossed around ideas, new committees were formed, even as we experimented with odd/even schemes for some vehicles.
It’s a start - but there is so much more to be done. Recognition, awareness and education: three important areas, along with long term institutional action in our beautiful capital and beyond.
According to a recent study,PM 2.5 in Delhi is generated from a fragmented mix of contributing factors: Waste burning is 27.5% ; industries add another 13% and diesel gensets contribute 14.6%. Transport certainly does play a large role contributing 22.7% of PM 2.5 generation. As a citizen, I wonder where and how we are addressing each of these areas in order to effectively lower air pollution in New Delhi? In the past year, we’ve only heard of limited vehicle restrictions with odd/even for mere weeks, but no longer term plan has emerged.
Even more worrying is the lack of conversation around our other 12 most polluted cities? What of Patna, Gwalior, Raipur, Ahmedabad, Lucknow, Firozabad, Kanpur, Amritsar, Ludhiana, Allahabad, Agra and Khanna? What of the millions of people who live in these cities? They remain as invisible as the air pollution will seem to so many Delhi residents this summer as they remark on the beautiful clear skies.
So as we enter the summer season, let us remember the problem of air pollution has not gone
away. It hides in the shadows, less visible, but very much still there.
Tina Chadha is a founding member of Care For Air. In 2009, she relocated to New Delhi, India. Within her own family, she has felt the impact of India’s air pollution problem. She believes the air we breathe is the ultimate democratizer and that clean air must be accessible to all.
Spring has sprung. Lodhi Garden is grinning with flowers and bees. And along with the new leaves budding from trees and tender shoots sprouting from the earth, spreading a green veil over dusty Delhi, there are falling leaves. Everywhere. Simply everywhere. Each road, neighborhood, garden and alley has that conspicuous mound of fallen leaves, swept up by a conscientious muncipal worker (an oxymoron, but never mind!).
Delhi residents can take pride in the city being among the greenest metros in the country (there's so little we can take pride in, that this is precious indeed!), but the downside is these mounds leaves that no one knows what to do with. If I got paid for every time I've seen these leaves being set on fire by gardeners, muncipal workers, I would be rich. But instead, I'm poorer, at least in health, as the smoke from the burning cause the PM2.5 levels of particulate matter to rise sharply, adding to the already high levels that Delhi air comprises of, contributed by other sources like vehicular and thermal power emissions, brick kilns and regular trash, biomass and crop burning. What is extra frustrating is that unlike the other sources, over which we have even lesser control, burning of leaves, at least those in our own gardens or neighborhood is definitely something we can actively change. If we had the time and the inclination.
I have the latter, but like most of us, its the former, super-precious resource of time to research the solution to composting leaves that I've been struggling with.
When I lived in California, composting and mulching were key to garden health and I even recall taking a weekend composting class at the local community gardens, an emerald oasis in the concrete suburbia of a small West Coast town, on one side of a road named – what else! - Embarcadero. Suburban farmers tried to grow organic lettuce and tomatoes and learnt the benefits of vermicomposting, breathing in clean air as they dug, watered, hoed, sprinkled and shovelled.
When I moved back to New Delhi, I looked for materials and advice on composting - and drew a complete blank. There were one-off classes on composting for terrace and kitchen garden farmers, some vague literature on urban farming, but nothing substantial. Until I found The Daily Dump, where leaf composting was one piece of the larger solution around recycling and waste management.
But it was another two years before I would find myself drawn again and again to their composting solutions as the simplest and best. And it would be another year before I would get to touch their eco-friendly, mostly terracotta products – at my daughter's new school! - where it all came together.
So here's something I've been researching – because I feel that telling people not to burn leaves or biomass, without offering them an alternative isn't really very effective. Or very fair. You come off sounding like a prescriptive, faintly insolent, psuedo-knowledgeable, semi-paranoid I'm-better-than-you sort of clueless person. And so, I'd like to share with everyone reading this post why I've been recommending leaf composting through The Daily Dump, a Bangalore-based design-led company which aims to reduce waste, improve material recovery and enable better livelihoods through voluntary collective action of urban citizens in an organic and enabling manner.
I like that the Dump helps imagine and re-engineer alternative scenarios that can wholistically and mindfully change behaviour for decentralised waste management in homes, communities, offices and public spaces. I like that their videos are simple and easy to follow. I like that it was started by a woman. I like that that Bangalore-based woman's elderly father was manning her stall at a Delhi school supporting his daughter and the environment at the same time. What was there not to like? Their range of segregation products, composters, books and services reflects their mission to enable all to harm less – and treats waste as a resource.
So if you're serious about your (and your children's) lungs and cognitive function and want to do your drop-in-the-ocean bit to bring down PM2.5 levels, at least in your own vicinity, here's what you need to do.
Go to the Daily Dump website, (http://www.dailydump.org) check out their leaf composting video, if you like its simplicity and feel you can do it, order one – or several (for your neighborhood) from one of the 70 partners they have all over India (there are multiple outlets in Delhi and Gurgaon) and begin. Now. Or this weekend. Or by the end of this month. But soon. Then tell others about it. Maybe convince your school to adopt it. Or your Residents Welfare Association.
And if you have any other options for leaf disposal that you're already using and that have worked well for you – please share! Write to us at careforair.org or just simply comment on this blog post.
We are crowdsourcing simple, workable solutions to begin our own journeys towards reducing PM levels in the cities we live and breathe in. Join us.
Jyoti Pande Lavakare
Jyoti Pande Lavakare is an independent columnist, financial journalist and writer who has lived and worked in Britain, the United States and India, writing for international and Indian publications. In a past life, she produced youth programs for radio and television and her children's fiction appeared in Hachette anthologies. She has a Masters in Economics and currently lives in New Delhi with her husband, teens and a wilting kitchen garden.
One keeps seeing ads in newspapers and magazines about the noxious air that we are breathing indoors and how our indoor air is actually 10 times worse than outdoor air and hence we MUST buy an air purifier to breathe cleaner air. Lets not get carried away with this marketing and try to understand if our indoor air really is as bad as it is made out to be.
To understand air quality, we are going to break it up into:.
Gases and Odour: Some of the pollutants from this next category of pollutants are typically what are much higher indoors versus outdoors – sometimes as much as 10 times higher - they are CO2 and VOC’s. SO2, NO2 and O3 are typically higher outdoors. But do air purifiers really address CO2 and VOC’s? No. They do NOT. No air purifier in the world today is capable of reducing or removing CO2. Some of them reduce VOC’s marginally, but truly do NOT do much to these carcinogenic gases – like formaldehyde, benzene, acetone, etc. Hence, one MUST air out their rooms in order to get rid of these toxic gases from the air. So the main claim of indoor air being 10 times worse that outdoors is not even addressed adequately by an air purifier.
Microbiological pollutants: These pollutants are typically marginally higher indoors versus outdoors. And a lot of technologies aim at removing these pollutants from the air – UV, negative ionizers, ozonisers, photo catalytic oxidation, etc. However, one must be extremely cautious about these technologies, as they can produce Ozone as a by-product and end up hurting one in the long run as prolonged exposure to even mild levels of Ozone is very harmful for health. Also, if one eliminates all the bacteria and virus in indoor spaces and makes it sterile, it may not be so good, as living in a sterile environment ALL the time can brings down immunity and one may fall ill if exposed to any bacteria, virus or mold.
But removing the first 2 pollutants (particulate matter and harmful gases) is actually good for us and improves our immunity. If one thinks that by breathing air polluted with PM and gases one is becoming immune and stronger, then one should encourage their children to smoke a packet of cigarettes every day. Now that would be something.
Removing PM2.5 and odor can actually help reduce stress on the lungs and help one breathe better and reduce the symptoms of wheezing and asthma. Hence an air purifier may actually be a good thing – but NOT because our indoor air is 10 times worse than the outdoors.
Barun Aggarwal is an entrepreneur and MBA with multi-continent experience. He has actively engaged in campaigns around climate crisis issues relating to air quality, water conservation, and energy efficiency. Barun founded Breathe Easy Consultants to help improve indoor air quality and is actively engaged with The Climate Project Foundation (the Indian branch of The Climate Reality Project founded by Nobel Laureate Al Gore).
Take a deep breath.
Can you smell it? It’s the scent of death.
Until a few months ago
Even I didn’t know
That the sky was so grey,
That the 13000 litres of air I was breathing every day
Was so poisonous, so polluted
And that this particulate matter was rooted
In my lungs, seeping into my blood stream
When I found out- I wanted to scream.
Because all those frequent headaches I got
Was because of the air which left me so distraught.
Lung cancer, stunted organ development, respiratory diseases
All because we drive our Mercedes’??
Yes, you heard that right.
Cars cause 60% of the pollution - just because our sight
Is not designed to see these invisible particles
Doesn’t mean we should ignore those articles
In the newspapers- which talk about how
Every day in the city that seems so pretty- is somehow
Bringing us closer to bad days.
But this is OUR city. We’re not going to run.
Instead of feeling sorry and scared for our sons
and daughters and mother and fathers,
We can find a solution
For this terrible terrible air pollution.
Trust me its possible - but only if we work together.
Seeing everyone gathered here, despite the cold weather
Is a step itself, to make a change.
It gives me hope, that someone, somewhere wanted to arrange
An event like this.
Good morning everyone, my name is Naina Durga. I am a 16 year old girl who has decided to take
ownership of the air I breathe. I’ve already talked about how poisonous the air is and how I’ve been
affected by it. It’s time now to talk about what we can actually do, so that my generation doesn’t suffer in the future.
There are 3 levels of these solutions;
1. At an individual level: the first thing we, as individuals can do is to inform ourselves. Delhi’s air
has started to gain recognition by the media- READ those articles, read blogs, listen to the radio,
watch the news. The more informed you are the more you can spread the word. Know what the
safe level is and what the actual pollution level is so you can plan your day ahead. If its red air
pollution day- try to stay indoors, go to the gym instead of the park. Did you know that between
12-4 the air outside is the best? The second thing to do is protect ourselves. Wear pollution masks which have a rating of N-95 or N-99 (They can be anywhere from 85 rupees to 4000 rupees)
Disposable surgeons masks DO NOT have any effect whatsoever in filtering pure air. Buying air purifiers, while they are expensive, will help in the long run. A less expensive way to reduce indoor air pollution is to use plants such as areca palm, spider plant, or snake plant.
2. At the communal level: attending protests and rallies – like this one - which push for sustainable
development or greener public transport can be beneficial for the environment. Apart from that, joining environmental NGO’s, signing petitions banning crop burning or even bringing up the topic of air pollution in daily conversations can be of help.
3. At the government level: push for policies which keep environmental sustainability in mind. India uses Euro III or Euro IV fuel, rather than the much greener Euro VI fuel (which is used in the U.S.) because it’s a much cheaper option. The odd even rule - which may not have been completely effective - was at least a sign that the government was finally giving air pollution some thought.
Some of you may be wondering what I’ve done to pursue clean air - recently, I thought of setting up a clean air club in my school to inform children my age that air pollution wasn’t just something we read about in our textbooks - it is actually a problem. I know I’m running short of time- so I’d like to end by saying that I am CONFIDENT that we can reduce the air pollution. It may be difficult, but its not impossible.
(Excerpt from Delhi teen Naina Lavakare's Slam Poetry performance and speech at the Help Delhi Breathe citizen rally held on January 17, 2016.)
Naina Durga is a New Delhi-based high schooler who has volunteered to support Care for Air's school programs. Her interest in clean air evangelism grew with each CFA presentation she attended, culminating in the initiation of a Clean Air Club in her own school. She is in the process of recruiting volunteers across senior grades for her Club so that together, they can create a cohort of student ambassadors who will educate younger children to form the next generation of pollution warriors.
As a kid growing up in Delhi and visiting my relatives in Calcutta, I was proud to live in a city with clean air and open roads – two things that Calcutta even in the 80s lacked. I remember being bothered by the pollution in Calcutta and the buses belching out black smoke. Little did I know that the city I loved would also go a similar route.
Delhi has now become unlivable on more than one count – overcrowded colonies, traffic jams, water shortage, and hazardous air. However, we Indians are very resilient when it comes to getting used to various crises – and we learn to live with them… till the crisis really hits home.
That’s what happened to me one December night in 2014. I woke up in the middle of the night feeling I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to go out and deeply inhale fresh air but I knew the air outside wouldn’t help – it was smelly and smoky – perhaps from the trail of trucks on NH-8 close to where I live. The next day my doctor told me that I had had a bronchospasm and put me on inhalers!
With this kick, I converted my intention of getting a room air purifier into action. A few months later a friend presented me with a face mask to wear when I was outside - including in the car. This combination of room air purifier and face mask really helped – and soon after adopting this combination I came off the inhaler.
Now I do my best to spread the word about air pollution and recommend that people take steps to protect themselves from its hazards. But the long-term solution and the solution for the millions of residents of Delhi who would find the cost of a purifier burdensome or impractical is to bring the pollution levels down.
I’m happy to be part of Care for Air and do my bit in supporting an organization that is spreading awareness in different groups such as school children and doctors. Let us hope that before long we will reach a tipping point – where clean air become a citizens’ demand that the politicians cannot ignore. Without this happening I am afraid that the haze is unlikely to lift from Delhi’s skies.
Abhishek Bhartia is the director of Sitaram Bhartia Institute of Science and Research, a nonprofit hospital and medical research centre in Delhi. Abhishek has engineering and management degrees from Cornell University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.He has long been bothered by poor air quality in urban India. He hopes we can make a positive change by mobilising information and the will of many.
This seems like a no-brainer, doesn't it? When air pollution is bad outside, it makes sense to wear a pollution mask to protect yourself. Right? Well, it turns out the answer is more complicated than that and health professionals are divided on whether its wise to recommend masks or not…an inconvenient reality I learned as I headed down my own journey of learning how to protect myself and my family against Delhi’s toxic air, starting in 2012. As a health professional myself I had to learn where I fell on the issue.
Here’s my story in a nutshell: My husband, two kids and I arrived in Delhi from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2012, excited for the coming 3 years of adventure living in Delhi. We weren’t prepared for what was to become our greatest challenge living in Delhi, but it hit us hard in our first months—we felt the air pollution in our chests and heads and tasted it in our mouths. The kids felt lethargic and I often felt dizzy. As a public health professional, I knew we had at least some recourse and sent away for home air purifiers and pollution masks. At the time only a few quality brands of either were available anywhere in India. Online, I ordered a bunch of different high-quality, certified air pollution masks from abroad for my family to try (3M, Vogmask and Totobobo) in hopes that we would find ones that fit and felt comfortable enough to incorporate into our lives whenever we left the house.
It was naive to think it would be that easy. None of us liked the way they felt, taking them on and off was a drag, and worst of all, no one else was wearing masks at the time and we attracted a lot of negative attention. It wasn’t working. Frustrated by this failure, I began research to support my argument that we really SHOULD be wearing these masks…and this is where things got complicated. I found that for every expert who swears by them, there is one who doesn’t recommend them. What’s going on here? Here is my simple summary of what I have learned.
First some relevant facts:
The case for wearing a pollution mask:
The public health message on air pollution is to minimize your exposure to toxic air as much as possible. So, it makes sense that a well-made, properly fitting mask would be a good response for when you are outside. Here are a couple scholarly articles for the nerdier among you on how N95 certified masks can help decrease health risks:
The case against wearing a mask:
Health experts who don’t recommend wearing masks argue that there are just too many variables at play to make a solid recommendation that people should wear them. The mask needs to be well made to give you the kinds of benefits we are talking about so any old cloth won’t do (though they may keep out the larger particles, so saying an old cloth does “nothing” is also not accurate!)and there are a lot of masks on the market that don't filter the small particles we are most worried about PM2.5 and smaller. It also needs to fit well so that you pull the air you breathe through the filters in the mask. If there are gaps in how the mask fits you, it may not be doing you any good at all and in fact give you a false sense of protection. Under this false sense of protection you may engage in rigorous activities, pull in more air more deeply than you would without a mask and actually harm yourself more than you would have not wearing one and modulating your activity to keep your heart rate down. Finally, if the air inside your home/school/office is just as bad, what’s the point in wearing a mask when you venture outside? Will you wear your mask all the time? That's just not practical. Just a little of the time? If just a little of the time, is the inconvenience worth it?
This is the thumb-nail sketch, mind you, but with everything I’ve learned about the benefits and limitations of masks over the last few years, I find I am still a firm pro-masker. I think people are smart enough to understand the complexities here… it has to be a good one, it has to fit and hardest of all, you do have to wear it for it to work. But some protection some of the time is better than none at all (minimizing your exposure is the name of the game, remember.) Last summer my family and I moved to cleaner climes and don’t have to manage the fumbling and fuddling of air pollution masks in our daily lives anymore but, to me, its really heartening to see that quality masks like 3M, Totobobo, Vogmask and Respro are popping up in the markets and on faces all over Delhi now. It is a small tool in the arsenal against the harmful health effects of air pollution but air pollution is a serious foe and we need all the tools we can get.
Genevieve Chase is an American public health professional who has worked for organizations including the UN and the World Bank. In October 2014, Genevieve founded Delhiair.org, an informational web site about the health effects of air pollution. Since then, she has been pulling people together around the issues of air pollution, to create partnerships for innovative solutions. She lives in Washington D.C. with her family.
I have lived in Delhi for just over two years, and it’s incredible how the conversation about air pollution has changed since I first arrived in January 2014.
I remember very distinctly stepping off the plane at IGI into what looked and felt like the lingering smoke of some kind of explosion or fire, or other natural or unnatural disaster.
I’d only ever been to Delhi in May (the previous year) when the air seemed perfectly fine, so this was pretty alarming. My husband, who’d arrived a few months earlier, told me not to worry - “it’s the Delhi fog. It’s normal for this time of year”. But it didn’t look normal, and it didn’t smell normal either. I tried to relax, determined not to be an annoying, paranoid ex-pat.
But the ‘fog’ lingered well into February, as did my concern. I started asking questions about why the air was like this. The most frequent answer I got was ‘dust’ – dust from Rajasthan, dust from construction, dust from unpaved roads. And at the time, that was reasonably re-assuring - ‘dust’ didn’t sound so bad. It certainly didn’t sound toxic. I tried to ignore my own sore throat, and my kids’ night-time coughing.
Two years have passed and now I know it’s not just dust, and it’s not just fog, and it is toxic. I feel like every conversation I have these days, is about PM2.5, vehicle emissions, the burning of biomass and fuel standards - I am not alone in my journey
And what’s happened between now and 2014? Is the air really so much worse now? I decided to take a look at the historical data on the US Embassy website (http://newdelhi.usembassy.gov/airqualitydata.html), and count the number of days that the PM 2.5 ug/m3 level went over 300. I looked at the month of January 2014 and then at January 2016. I wanted to get a general sense of whether there had been any big changes. The comparison doesn’t take into account the time of day the levels were over 300, or how long the levels stayed over 300, or how much over 300 they went, or the weather, or any other environmental factors. So, yes, it’s a flawed comparison. But still, bear with me and take a look at the numbers: January 2016 had 25 days during which (at some point) the PM2.5 levels went over 300ug/m3, and January 2014 had 23 - only two days less.
So, what happened? Why did no one mention this to me when I specifically asked both expats and Indians in May 2013, what it was like to live in Delhi? (They told me about the traffic and the heat.) How did the conversation change so dramatically?
Looking back, there was the whole Delhi vs Beijing debate that was covered in local and international press around May 2014. That was a game changer. It’s not that everyone suddenly agreed we had a health emergency on our hands, but for the first time we had data that enabled us to link our own experience with global baselines.
Over the course of the year that followed, air quality made its way into conversations across Delhi, onto social media platforms, and into the courts. And then came odd-even (which may not have been very effective in the actual lowering of pollution levels), but by January 2016 it was impossible not to talk about air.
So in 2016 we find ourselves sharply more aware of the public health crisis in our city, and the government has moved from denial to promising solutions. It is still not clear that anyone is ready to face up to hard choices that are really needed to clean Delhi’s air, choices that will require action far beyond the capital. What we do know is that living in a toxic cloud is no choice at all, and now that we have the numbers, there can be no return to the ignorance of years past or to an acceptance that every citizen’s right to a clean air can be so severely curtailed.
Aurelia Driver is a South African writer and filmmaker living in Delhi. It was a search for ways to protect the health of her two young children that first sparked Aurelia’s interest in issues of air quality, and led her to a broader investigation of Delhi’s pollution crisis and its possible solutions. She is excited about being able to use her experience in the visual media in working towards broad-based community awareness.
It’s been eighteen months since,
I read the headline with a wince,
“Delhi most polluted city in the world”, it said,
Filling me with great anxiety and dread,
Two little tots dandled on my knee,
And another likely, to make it three,
“Don’t worry”, said my wife, “it’ll be fine”,
“We had the same air in ‘99,
And then see how it changed,
With a little hope, all can be arranged.”
“I’ll wait a year”, quoth I,
“and then give something else a try”,
“For our elected must now sound the clarion cry,
And we shall see what our netas do,
To turn our sky from grey to blue”.
The days fled past, as if in terror,
Running from the grim pallor,
That left us breathless with the wheeze,
As we watched our youngest cough and sneeze.
The presses worked overtime to convey,
Awful statistics with increasing dismay,
Of billowing plumes from nocturnal trucks,
That from our lungs the power sucks,
And construction dust and smoking stacks,
All displaying what the capital lacks,
Some left town so the air wouldn’t kill,
The Government however sat stock still,
With nary acknowledgment or apology,
Bidding adieu to the environmental refugee.
“Enough of this stupor”, I thought,
“My patience has gone and my nerves are fraught,
It is time to try my inadequate bit,
And see if any solution would fit.”
The problem was a mountain high,
But not for kindred souls who aren’t shy,
Using our legal skills, albeit modest,
We moved the Supreme Court for our youngest,
Two couples joined forces with us,
As we sought to kick up a fuss.
The “Infants’ petition” was in autumn born,
And on every paper and channel it was on,
People who knew that fireworks charred and killed,
Now learnt of tiny lungs that stilled.
The Court was sadly unconvinced of this fate,
And allowed the case to be given another date,
But come Diwali week and we find,
That Delhi’s heart is stronger than its mind,
Sales have plummeted giving succour,
So that kids and animals don’t suffer,
No court or leader gave us this answer,
For wisdom and empathy can never be asunder,
Now with brightness of eye and sense of purpose,
Our promises to little hearts leave us nerveless,
With ten million voices fuelling our vigour anew.
This struggle will grow and continue,
No matter what, we will fight and survive,
And bury alive that dreaded PM 2.5.
Gopal Sankaranarayanan is an advocate of the Supreme Court of India and founding member, Care for Air. When his wife and middle child developed allergies, he started looking for solutions. He sees clean air as a fundamental right of all citizens and believes in action by the people where the Government abdicates its role.
Tell us your personal stories on how you battle air pollution in your daily life and in your community.