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Pallavi Aiyar, the author of “Choked! Inside The World’s Most Polluted Cities” sits down to talk about the how, when and why’s of Delhi and pollution.

Can you tell us what frightens you the most about air pollution?

Pallavi Aiyar (PA): That it becomes normalised so easily. How what is, in fact, a horrific public health emergency can so easily become accepted as a non-modifiable fact of life. I have lived most of my life in the congested megalopolises of Delhi, Beijing and Jakarta. As I write in the book, vehicular fumes, smokestacks and burning leaves have been the predominant olfactory backdrop of my biography. But what is common to all the polluted Asian countries that I have lived in is the banality of the dirty air. It is often uncommented-upon, even unnoticed. Seen at most as an inconvenience that one must live with. But in fact, there is much that we can do both at an individual and policy level to clean up the air and make what should be a taken-for-granted necessity, breathing, safe. Unfortunately, in cities like Delhi, it is not safe.

When do cities like Delhi have to say enough?

PA: Delhi is at the peak of global pollution indexes. There are reports that one of every four children in the Indian capital suffers from a serious lung disorder, and hundreds of thousands of premature deaths in the country are linked to toxic air. One study found that fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) was linked to up to 16,200 premature deaths (and a staggering 6 million asthma attacks per year) in Delhi alone. You don’t even need all of these statistics. Just try stepping outside and breathing deeply on almost any day during the winter season and you will feel the burning in the throat. The time horizon for any concerted effort to battle air pollution is 15-20 years. Even if we start now it will take years for improvement to be felt.

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What are the three key expert views that crystallised your view of pollution in Delhi?

PA: First of all, Deborah Seligsohn, who is a researcher on environmental governance at the University of California at San Diego, with a specific focus on China and India. She helped me realize that a single-minded focus on cars and vehicular pollution is far from enough to battle dirty air. We must look at industrial sources and power plants, but also steel and metal smelting, chemicals, refineries, cement, etc.  These industrial plants need to be equipped with pollution abatement technologies that are both available and effective. Because many of these plants are located outside of city limits, we do not link them to pollution as easily as we do vehicles.  However, instead of focusing on individual cities, the policy must take into account airsheds as a whole. Just as Beijing’s air only began to improve after measures to tackle pollution in neighbouring Tianjin and Hebei were also implemented, there will be no solution to Delhi’s dirty air without addressing pollution in the neighbouring states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

Speaking to Ashutosh Dixit, the head of URJA (United Residents Joint Action), an umbrella organization for resident welfare associations (RWA) in Delhi, was illuminating in a different way. He raised the point of how what is a difficult issue on a policy level is complicated by recalcitrant behaviour at the individual level. Even as people may complain about the bad air and (rightly) expect the government to take measures to tackle it, they are unwilling to modify their own polluting behaviours. Mr Dixit gave the example of how efforts to get residents to compost at the neighbourhood level, using fallen leaves from parks and kitchen waste, have failed because “people prefer not to think about ‘dirty’ things like koora (rubbish).” In fact, individual behavioural change is as necessary a part of the pollution-fighting puzzle, as are judicial activism and political diktats.

Last, but certainly not least, this book and indeed the entire environmental community in India owes a debt to the work of Dr Sarath Guttikunda, who began conducting empirical investigations into pollution, its sources and impact, years before it became a subject of general concern. Dr Guttikunda is the Director of the independent research group UrbanEmissions.info and much of the statistical information that underlies the arguments in my book comes from the meticulous studies undertaken by him.

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Would you ever come back to live in Delhi?

PA: While researching the book, every public health expert I spoke to was of the opinion that one should not move to Delhi with young kids (children are more vulnerable than adults to the negative effects of air pollution) if it can be avoided. Unlike most people, I actually do have a choice about where I live. Would I ever come back to live in Delhi? The answer is definitely yes. Not because I want my kids to suffer, but because I have emotional and family bonds to the city that cannot be replaced. It would be a trade-off, but one that I am personally willing to make. That said, I would make the move knowing that I could leave again if things got really bad (my younger son has mild asthma). If moving back to Delhi was something that did not have an escape clause attached to it, I might think twice.

What did Beijing do that was right for its citizens?

PA: In the public imagination Beijing remains the ground zero of air pollution. But I argue that contrary to its reputation, China is the leader in the neighbourhood when it comes to cleaning up the skies.  The Olympic Games that Beijing hosted in 2008, had served as a wake-up call for China, something that Delhi’s 2010 Commonwealth Games did not do for India. It was in the run-up to the Games that Beijing’s air pollution went from being viewed as ‘fog’, to a burning political issue with consequences for the resilience of the ruling Communist party. In 2014, a WHO study found that Delhi’s PM 2.5 was close to three times the Beijing mean.

China has developed a network of 1,500 air quality-monitoring stations in over 900 cities. There is no other country in the developing world with this level of monitoring infrastructure. The comparison with India, which only has 39 such stations, covering 23 cities is revealing (as of Feb 2016). The share of thermal power plants with basic pollution abatement equipment in China is 95% compared to 10% in India. Again, there are promotion-related consequences for administrative officials like provincial governors in China, if they miss pollution-lowering targets, whereas there are no equivalent consequences in India. Unlike India, China has developed national, regional and city-level action plans with measurable 5-year targets. The regional action plans cover entire airsheds and address all major sources of pollution in an integrated manner.

When it comes specifically to Beijing and cars, given that vehicles have dominated the pollution debate in Delhi, hundreds of thousands of cars and trucks that do not meet pollution standards have been taken off the Chinese capital’s roads. Since 2009, polluting vehicles, identified by a yellow sticker, have been barred from entering the area that lies within the city’s fifth ring road. In 2011-2012, restrictions were placed on car ownership. Beijingers can only buy a new car if they do not already have a vehicle registered under their name. They are then eligible to enter a monthly lottery for 20,000 license plates. In 2013 Beijing cut the number of new license plates by 37% over 2012, to only 150,000.  The city plans to limit vehicle growth to 6 million by 2017.

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Pallavi Aiyar’s Choked! Inside the World’s Most Polluted Cities is now available on the Juggernaut app here

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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