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Humans of Air Pollution – India’s Growing Tribe of Environmental Refugees
This is the second of a three-part series on India’s small but growing tribe of environmental migrants. Currently, these “pollution refugees” come from the privileged class of the educated aware. But as awareness grows and people connect the dots around the health harm pollutants trigger – in this case, the human cost of air pollution – the country will see a greater migration from extremely high to relatively low pollution areas, says Jyoti Pande Lavakare, who has been tracking this space since 2014. Read part 1 here and part 3 here.
Who is accountable for the disease, disability and death India’s deadly air pollution triggers?
“The government, of course. Politicians and bureaucrats are in the position of authority, policy making and execution. But also industry, corporations, and we people. We are all complicit. We must demand and work towards clean air, if not for us, for our children. We allow companies to get away with too much,” says Dilshad Master-Kumar, 57, a pollution refugee like me, one who didn’t even wait for the AQI to begin its winter climb. She moved out of Delhi, bag, baggage and child in March 2022, at the beginning of the school term. A deeply researched report in the Washington Post validates her statement, demonstrating how political will favours crony coal billionaires who export thermal power even as emissions from their factories sicken Indians.
A leading Indian economist and environmental evangelist who has been tracking the air pollution footprint of different sectors of the Indian economy for over five years confirms what Master-Kumar is intuitively saying. “If we add up the emissions from thermal power plants, fossil fuel products, and other public sector companies, the state and central governments together would account for the majority of the GHGs and pollutants emitted in India,” he said, declining to be named.
Master-Kumar, a cancer survivor who recently lost her husband during the COVID-19 pandemic, parents a sporty 12-year old girl who didn’t want to move, especially after all the upheaval in her life. “Saira misses Delhi every single day and asks when we can return. I’ve promised her that if the pollution comes down, we will go back,” says Master-Kumar resolutely. “But will it?”
Master-Kumar’s father-in-law, a decorated soldier and mountaineer who led the first Indian Army team to successfully scale Mount Everest in 1965, died of lung complications three months after his son’s death in September 2020. He was suffering from interstitial lung disorder and was on oxygen support for the last four years of his life. “What kills me is that my 80-plus mother-in-law won’t join me here and continues to breathe that poisonous air in Delhi,” she adds. Eight months after Master-Kumar moved to a village close to mine, her mother-in-law had a cardiac arrest on a polluted January morning in Delhi in 2023, from which she took nearly seven months to recover.
For Master-Kumar, the wake up call was a patch in her own lungs discovered during a regular medical checkup the following year. “I had to move. I’m all Saira has,” she says bluntly. “And I wanted her to be able to play outdoors without me worrying.” For athletic, outdoorsy families like these, it is even more dangerous to live with air pollution. But it’s not just the young and athletic – pollution affects the elderly more severely. Unfortunately, most aren’t even aware of the health harms associated with dirty air. Those who are, and can, move out.
An example is 78-year old journalist Coomi Kapoor, who leaves her comfortable home in Delhi after Diwali each year for Siolim, another village close to mine, only to return in February, after the rain has washed away the winter pollution. “We were very reluctant to leave Delhi. But it has made all the difference to our health.” Kapoor’s husband got severe pneumonia about nine years ago and was in intensive care with compromised lungs. “He literally got sick overnight, it was so sudden,” she said. Every winter after that, he would get a chest infection and shiver himself into a high fever – until they moved to Siolim, close to the Tivim railhead. “Since then, he’s been fine,” she says. They have now bought a place in Siolim, signifying in a way their hopelessness about seeing any improvement in Delhi’s air quality. “I still have to travel to Delhi for work commitments during peak pollution season and everytime I’m there, I get a sore throat and some respiratory infection or other,” she says.
But the question remains: why must we be forced out of our chosen city of residence to escape high levels of environmental toxins – and why are they especially high in Delhi, the capital of the country? This city of my childhood and youth is the one my husband and I chose to relocate back to in 2009, with two young children, surrendering our Green Cards in our idealism and swapping California’s blue skies with Delhi’s hazy ones. What had I done to our lungs, to our overall health?
North India’s geographic, meteorological misfortune meets farm fires, fireworks
For those of us living in the north, it is important to understand its geographical and meteorological misfortune with regards to air pollution.
The majestic Himalayas in the north act as a barrier to the dispersal of the dense smog of PM2.5 particles that winter temperatures and still winds bring closer to the earth’s surface. This happens each year after the south-westerly monsoon winds recede, usually by late September/early October, which is when temperatures also start dropping. The cold weather causes inversion, trapping PM closer to the ground, thus increasing human exposure (even at the same level of emissions.) This is also when the wind direction changes – and if farmers in the northwest (mainly Punjab) are turning around their fields by burning them to prepare for planting wheat after harvesting their rice crop, this changed wind direction brings all that smoke downwind into densely populated urban centres of Delhi, Gurgaon Faridabad, Ghaziabad, Noida, Meerut, Muzzaffarngar and hundreds of other busy towns, adding to their already high existing pollution load and suffocating their population. In the past two years, post-monsoon showers in the national capital region had extended till early October, washing away the microparticulate toxins and leaving behind blue skies. However, October 2023 has been the driest, with zero rain in the first 15 days, compared with 89 mm rain in October 2022 and 64 mm in October 2021, predicting an early start to what is now called the pollution season.
However, north India is polluted all year, not just in the winter, when two specific events add to its year-round pollution load. Delhi-NCR’s year-round sources of pollution include combustion-related emissions from vehicles, factories, small medium and large industry, diesel generators, power plants, household cooking and heating, brick and pottery kilns in the urban periphery, open waste and other biomass burning, dust from roads, construction sites and dust-laden desert winds from neighbouring states. Dust is not a direct pollutant – it becomes more toxic because it is coated with emissions from combustion. PM2.5 from friction of rubber tyres and airline fuel emissions near airports are some other year-round sources.
Additionally, this time also coincides with India’s largest festival – Diwali, the festival of lights (which has become more the festival of firecrackers.) With the billion-plus population lighting crackers, more smoke, now loaded with chemicals such as nitrates and perchlorates of barium, perlite, potassium, magnesium, aluminium and titanium starts choking people, the high episodic levels lead directly to increased hospital admissions.
Diwali firecrackers nearly double PM2.5 levels during the two days of celebrations, which disperses gradually over the following days, based on wind speeds and rain. And if the winds die out, which often happens, the deadly cocktail of toxic air can remain stagnant in densely populated areas for weeks, increasing exposure and thus, disease, disability and death.
This year, the Delhi government banned the manufacture, sale, storage, distribution, delivery and bursting of firecrackers on September 11 itself. The ban, announced earlier than in the last two years was also more comprehensive, an improvement on last-minute reactive directives and half measures that have been the norm. However, how strictly this ban is followed will be up to the police. The police force is under the administrative control of the Union government, controlled by a rival right wing party of the one that in power in Delhi. In previous years, the ban has been openly flouted without repercussions, negating any positive impact. Thankfully, Dussehra’s burning of Ravana’s effigies and fireworks was low key and didn’t spike its pollution levels because some Ramlila organisers switched to technology like laser beams. This has given the north a small respite, especially since there haven’t been strong winds – so any additional pollution would have remained suspended in the air – until it entered our lungs.
However, worse than the smoke from Dussehra and the two days of Diwali fireworks is the effect of smoke from farmers burning crop stubble after their rice (summer) harvest to quickly turn around and prepare their fields to sow their wheat (winter) crop. Just one neighbouring state – Punjab – burns almost 8 million metric tonnes of paddy straw every year. In 2021, satellite imagery recorded nearly 62,000 farm fires until November 10 in Punjab and Haryana. Despite all this, the political will to ban burning of crop residue remains weak.
Neither govt nor SC will ban key cause of winter peak
In past years, smoke from farm fires has often accounted for nearly half of Delhi’s winter peak. For example, on November 1, 2019, the Central Pollution Control Board member secretary Prashant Gargava said farm fire smoke contributed as much as 44% of Delhi’s winter air pollution levels. Despite its high contribution to pollution, political parties across the spectrum don’t want to touch stubble burning by farmers, a political tinderbox. Farmers are a strong vote bank that political parties cosset – and farmers’ protests have a long history in India, with farmers uniting as recently as 2021 to protest revamped farm laws.
With neither local, state or federal governments taking a stand on this issue, the courts were compelled to step in. In October 2020, in response to a petition by a young activist, the SC appointed retired Justice Madan Lokur as a one-man panel to prevent stubble burning. But the appointment of Lokur, known to be fair and committed to environmental issues, was hastily circumvented by the Union government which pushed through a law setting up a bureaucracy-heavy Commission on Air Quality Management (CAQM), hurrying it through by an Act of parliament when neither House was even in session. The 22-member CAQM has been singularly ineffective in reducing air pollution in its short life.
Ironically, CAQM replaced a 22-year old Environment (Pollution and Control) Authority which, despite having been constituted in 1998 from a Supreme Court order with enormous power to penalise or even jail polluters, ended up being ineffectual due to its reluctance to proactively rein in polluters
“Rather than adopt a strict policing role, the EPCA preferred to play the part of a caregiving parent,” gently reprimanding violators, resulting in an air-quality disaster over the National Capital Region, said environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta. This was mainly due to an inherent conflict of interest in its very constitution.
Now, with even court oversight removed, EPCA, a judicial authority, has been replaced by the CAQM, an even more ineffective bureaucratic avatar. But because of its existence, the courts are now even more hesitant to intervene. Even as recently as November 10, 2022 with the capital shrouded in smoke from crop residue burning, the Supreme Court refused to consider an urgent public interest appeal seeking fresh guidelines on stubble burning to curb air pollution. “There are some things courts can do and some things courts cannot do,” Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud said. He added, however, that some genuine solutions were required to solve the problem of poor air quality in the national capital.
This was a practical position to assume, given that parliament has legally constituted an official body whose very purpose is to control poor air. In any case, the court’s earlier rulings banning firecrackers have been difficult to enforce, with people openly flouting the ban and bursting highly polluting crackers despite poor air quality. The courts can direct, but it is the police force that must enforce the law.
In the face of clear and present danger, one can either fight or flee. In 2015, when expatriates posted to India began realising that pollution levels in Delhi were higher than even Beijing, there was a mini-exodus, most famously highlighted by New York Times journalist Gardiner Harris’s controversial parting opinion piece which offered anecdotal evidence of many foreigners leaving India only because they couldn’t justify raising their children in such toxic pollution. But what if you belong here but can’t breathe here? Abhishek Bharatiya was forced to move his whole family to Canada because he woke up gasping for breath night after winter night. It has been tough for him to be present for his elderly parents, his healthcare business in India but absent from its pollution. I have met several more highly educated Indian families who have taken this step to migrate away from north India’s terrible air. But we can’t all emigrate, although France has opened doors to pollution refugees by allowing a plea by an asthmatic Bangladeshi man to stay on in France because his lawyer argued that deporting him could cause a severe deterioration in his health and even premature death due to high levels of pollution in his home country. So where to go, when over 90% of India lives in areas where PM2.5 levels are more than twice the WHO limits?
Jyoti Pande Lavakare is the author of Breathing Here is Injurious to Your Health: The Human Cost of Air Pollution, published by Hachette in November 2020. The third and final part of the story will be carried on Thursday, November 2.