In November 2017, when pollution was at its peak in New Delhi, 38-year-old Brikesh Singh, a runner, decided to run the Delhi Half Marathon 10 days before the event. He had a purpose: to record with a device the pollution level on the route to be taken by the runners.
Singh, a former staffer with Greenpeace Turkey, was appalled by the idea of holding an outdoor sporting event at a time when ambient air pollution levels in the city were at an all-time high. So, he shot a video as he ran the 20 km stretch, documenting at each turn the spiralling pollution levels on his device, and uploaded it on social media.
A marathon battle
Singh argued that runners or sportspersons engaged in rigorous outdoor activity were at far greater risk than average citizens going about their daily routine. An athlete running at an easy pace for about three hours would inhale the same quantity of air as a sedentary person would in two days. The intake of air increases considerably when we exercise, as we take deeper and more frequent breaths, which is why health professionals warn against outdoor exercise when pollution is high.
Eventually, the Delhi Half Marathon did take place. But it managed to spark a public debate on whether sports events should be held in a city where lungs are exposed to such high levels of particulate matter. Singh’s video got over 150,000 hits, and pushed the Indian Medical Association to issue a warning against the event. The sponsors of the event, too, issued a statement about the associated health risks, adding that they would reconsider sponsoring the event the following year. Says Singh, on his decision to speak out against the Half Marathon: “Nobody seemed to care that 33,000 people would be breathing the poisonous Delhi air for a few hours. Breathing toxic air is becoming acceptable among the public, and this has encouraged the government to organise sports events such as the FIFA Under-17 World Cup and marathons. I wanted to start a debate on responsible sports. I wanted the media to start questioning the rationale behind organising this marathon. I wanted the government and the organisers to get a message that this is not okay.”
But sharing things on social media has its downside as well. Singh had to face an onslaught by trolls on Twitter, as well as a backlash from Delhi’s running community, which questioned his motives. For him, this was a sign of not just citizens’ apathy but also of a prevalent belief that if you are running in polluted air, you are negating the impact of air pollution on health.
Singh says that the tipping point for a true citizen’s movement will come when not only activists but citizens, too, demand their right to clean air. Notwithstanding the trolls, he is steadfast in his goal of getting Delhi to clean up its air like Beijing did. He is now focussing on bringing together about 30 organisations and individuals, all working on issues related to air pollution, under one umbrella called the Clean Air Collective. He says it is too soon to call his work a “victory”, but agrees that it is a “step in the right direction when everyone works together for a common goal.”
Bhopal in slow motion
Shweta Narayan, 39, who is a product of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, had been deeply moved by the social movement seeking justice for victims of the Bhopal gas disaster, and had met victims who had been fighting for compensation more than 20 years after the incident. Her exposure to other people’s movements opened her eyes to the class, caste and gender perspectives on environmental issues. “The biggest inspiration for me was the women of Bhopal — a bunch of people whose fight was more for the world than for themselves. They wanted to make sure that another Union Carbide does not rob people like us of our future,” she says.
Motivated by what she saw in Bhopal, Narayan decided to start a campaign for clean air in Cuddalore, an industrial hotspot on the eastern coast, just a few hours from Chennai. The area around the town had become a hub of intensely polluting units after the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu set up of a 200-hectare industrial estate 8 km away from Cuddalore town. Toxic chemical compounds were being released as effluents by the 18 companies in the industrial area. They were damaging the environment and the health of more than 20,000 people in 20 villages. Narayan helped set up a Community Environmental Monitoring (CEM) team in December 2003, which started monitoring the area’s air pollution using low cost devices. “In Cuddalore, people were living in a Bhopal unfolding in slow motion. Both these experiences had a lasting impact on the way I see and understand environment and human rights,” says Narayan.
It was the CEM report on air quality in 2004 that prompted the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee to direct the Central Pollution Control Board to formulate standards for voluntary organic compounds in the air. Narayan didn’t stop there — CEM programmes were successfully implemented in other industrial clusters in Kodaikanal, Mettur and Trichy in Tamil Nadu, and among pollution-impacted communities in Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh.
“I spent my childhood in Bokaro Steel City, a small and verdant town in Jharkhand. Environmental issues have always been close to my heart even though, while growing up, the meaning of ‘environment’ for me was limited to trees, birds, animals and rivers. As I went from school to college, my perspective on the environment began to broaden,” she says.
It has been a long journey for Narayan but with many small victories along the way. Based on the air sample results and air monitoring, residents of Kosumpaly village in Raigarh, Chhattisgarh filed a case of environmental violations against coal mines in the vicinity, being operated by JPL and South Eastern Coalfields Limited (SECL) in 2014.
In April 2017, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), through an interim order, imposed an initial fine of ₹5 crore each on JPL and SECL and ordered further investigation. The case is ongoing and is being heard by the NGT in Delhi. In December 2017, a high-level committee of the Ministry of Coal and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change released its report holding both companies responsible for widespread environmental violations and damage.
Similarly, communities in north Chennai stalled the environmental clearance for the 660 MW Ennore thermal power plant by going to court with data on air quality and its impact on the health of the people in the region.
Taking on powerful people and polluting companies hasn’t been easy, but Narayan’s philosophy is simple: “By reclaiming their environment, people also reclaim their dignity. For me that’s a win. It’s a win when communities take charge of their shared environmental destiny, when they train themselves and take on the scientists and engineers of the project in challenging their false data, and when they hold regulators accountable.”
How to stop stubble-burning
Up north, in the town of Faridkot in Punjab, 55-year-old Umendra Dutt is also busy mobilising the local community. In his case, it is the farmers who burn crop residue. When it’s time to harvest the paddy, plumes of smoke turn the sky grey as the farmers burn the stubble left behind by the big threshing machines over thousands of acres.
Dutt says that the Green Revolution may have made Punjab the food bowl of India, but it has left behind other problems for the farmers to grapple with. He insists that it is the government policy of trapping farmers in the cycle of wheat and paddy cultivation that has created the problem, which, for him, is not merely one of stubble burning but also about falling soil productivity and rising vulnerability to pests.
“Promoting long duration varieties of paddy such as PUSA-44 have created this problem. Long duration varieties are harvested in the first week of November. But this is also the appropriate time for the sowing of the next crop, which is wheat. It is because of this small window of time available that farmers prefer to burn the field rather than adopt other methods of incorporating the stubble into the soil, which takes time,” Dutt explains. “If we have to stop stubble burning, we have to change the way agriculture is practised in Punjab.”
That is why he has set up the Kheti Virasat Mission, a training hub for the second Green Revolution that he believes Punjab’s farmers need. He trains and gives lectures to farmers on the concepts of agricultural ecology, highlighting how the State’s climatic conditions are actually better suited for millet, oilseeds and pulses.
So what does he make of the recent efforts by the government to compensate farmers for stubble burning? “The cash compensation policy is similar to the ‘on-the-spot-marching’ that we used to do in our school days,” says Dutt. “You think you are moving ahead but actually you are stuck at the same spot. And we cannot move ahead until the government changes its agricultural paradigm.”
Dutt envisions a method of farming where farmers move away from monocropping and mulch the soil with the stubble. “The way forward, if we have to combat pollution and improve agriculture, is organic farming. It is the only answer to the problem of air pollution caused by stubble burning. The government should recognise this and establish it as mainstream farming. The philosophy and science of organic farming never allows for the burning of even a single straw of weed, within or outside the field,” he says.
Of course, this is easier said than done, but Dutt’s organisation has already shown the way. He has developed a manual on organic farming and trained over 30,000 farmers. Not one of these farmers who till thousands of hectares of land burns any stubble. “Our biggest achievement has been that we’ve been able to change the farmers’ mindsets,” he says. “They now understand that there is no need for synthetic and harmful chemicals, and no need to burn the stubble. They are convinced of the importance of having a harmonious relationship with the soil, air, water and biodiversity, and of the values of concern and compassion. Despite several years of challenges and failures while they learnt the ropes of organic farming, these farmers did not give up, they stuck with it.”
Protecting baby lungs
Not far from Punjab, in the national capital, Gopal Sankaranarayanan, 39, an advocate with the Supreme Court, decided to use what he knew best to fight the battle for clean air. Except that instead of fighting the case in his own name, he chose to do it as a father, and filed a petition on behalf of his bronchitis-afflicted toddlers.
“Having read up on the pollution issues in the National Capital Region, I started following the proceedings in the M.C. Mehta case. I realised that although a special body with wide-ranging powers, the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority had been set up for this precise purpose, there had been very little progress over the last 15 years. This was also borne out by a World Health Organisation report in 2013, which showed Delhi as the city with the world’s most toxic air. I felt we needed to have targeted measures, and what better way for a bunch of lawyers to do it than through the court,” says Sankaranarayanan. So, in 2015, five lawyers and an artist filed a petition seeking relief on behalf of their children.
Sankaranarayanan, like Singh, has received his share of brickbats. The case was criticised for being too focussed on Diwali, and as not addressing other issues. “The petition addresses all issues related to pollution,” he says in his defence. But with the media coverage focussing on the fireworks issue — partly because the results stemming from it were more directly evident than from cleaner fuel or transport — the order had a number of targeted reliefs.
Nonetheless, the apex court did ban the sale of crackers in 2017, and post-Diwali pollution levels were at their lowest compared to the three previous years. But Sankaranarayanan is acutely aware that it is too soon to celebrate. “We can’t pat ourselves on the back yet because we have a huge mountain to climb. I think the petition we filed did have a great impact in bringing the issue to the forefront and making people feel that they should participate in securing the Earth for future generations. I feel most motivated by my three children. Their lungs are precious, and as a dad, whatever the price, I will keep fighting and hope for a better tomorrow.”
Data to the rescue
Scientist Sarath Guttikunda, a self-confessed data geek, has been using science to change the public discourse on pollution. He was one of the first to point out that conversations around air pollution peaked around Diwali, and tended to die down for the rest of the year.
Guttikunda, who is in his 40s, is a product of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, and a National Aeronautics and Space Administration Earth Science Fellow. He has travelled the world presenting hard-hitting data on air pollution to change the conversation on air quality. He is the founder of Urban Emissions, a website that forecasts air quality for over 640 districts in the country. His strength is his ability to present air quality data in an easy-to-comprehend format. This could help transform the public discourse on air pollution by making it grounded in sound science rather than mere political rhetoric.
Guttikunda is also the developer of the SIM-air (Simple Interactive Models for Better Air Quality) family of tools. With applications for Asian, African, and Latin American cities, it is capable of assessing short- and long-term air pollution scenarios in a multi-pollutant environment. He is credited with taking the pollution conversation beyond Delhi through forecasting models that show what the ambient air pollution levels will be in cities across India.
His ‘Air Pollution Knowledge Assessments city program’ launched in 2017 provides a starting point for understanding air pollution in Indian cities. It focusses on 20 cities, with more likely to be added later this year. The initiative aims to provide the necessary information base to pollution control authorities so that they can prioritise interventions — which could either be local (such as with public transport and waste management) or regional (power plants) — for better air quality.
“Today, public interest in the subject is a hundred times more than what it used to be even two years ago,” says Guttikunda. “However, the same cannot be said for the amount of information in the public domain, both for ambient monitoring and the air pollution modelling perspective. I hope this will change. I hope the pollution control boards will recognise that more information needs to be generated, and more information needs to be modelled for a better understanding of pollution trends, pollution contributions, and pollution consequences, so that better policies can be formulated and implemented for cleaner air.” He is clear that there is no winning the pollution battle without the right kind of information.
“Most of the available tools are complex (state-of-the-art) and data-intensive (multi-purpose) and there is a need for some intermediate understanding that takes into account the availability of information, form of information, and institutional challenges,” says Guttikunda. “And for generating information, we first need more air pollution monitors.”
His analysis has shown that the country simply doesn’t have enough pollution monitors. “A city like Patna, for instance, has just three monitors, whereas it needs at least 26. Likewise, Bengaluru has 13 but it needs at least 41 monitors. Most cities have very few monitors, and this is a big problem because they can only generate a statistically insignificant sample to represent the range of sources contributing to the pollution problem in the city.”
Regretfully, the response from most politicians and policymakers has been to pass on the buck to the neighbouring States when confronted with the air pollution problem. What is easily forgotten is that most cities share a common air shed (a part of the atmosphere that behaves in a coherent way with regard to the dispersion of pollutants). So what happens in a small district in Punjab, for instance, will impact cities more than 300 km away. Individuals like Singh, Narayan, Guttikunda, Dutt, and Sankaranarayanan are leading the way, offering hope that there might be a way out of the toxic haze, hope that we can clean our air and that we can do it now.
Bahar Dutt is an environment journalist who lives in New Delhi. The air quality in the city at the time of writing this piece was ‘Poor’