Open Letter To President Obama About “Hazardous” Air Pollution In New Delhi

Posted by Amrit Sharma in Environment
November 27, 2017

Dear President Obama,

🙏 Welcome back to New Delhi. I’m excited to hear that you are hosting a Town Hall here. I would like to bring to your attention something that Delhi residents are unfortunately all too familiar with: air pollution.

You have always asked us to believe not only in your ability to bring about change but also our own. I believe that clean air is a basic human right. When I returned from Minneapolis to Delhi in 2014, I was stunned to find that the air I was breathing here wasn’t just unhealthy, it was hazardous. It was a jarring wake up call that I could no longer take clean air for granted. I have since been working on democratizing air quality data. Although I am happy to share that access to air quality data has improved considerably and more people are aware of this public health emergency, there is still so much more to do.

Nearly 80% of people living in cities worldwide do not have clean air. I bet the promised land that Dr King envisioned from the mountaintop had clean air. I’m sure the kids of all races could be playing outdoors, instead of huddling around air purifiers at home (if they are fortunate enough to have one). The reality is that most Indians can’t afford a $2 face mask, let alone an air purifier that cost hundreds of dollars.

Driving range in Delhi on November 8, 2017. The ball disappears into the smog at the 75 yard line.
Driving range in Delhi on November 8, 2017. The ball disappears into the smog at the 75-yard line.

New Delhi is the poster child of air pollution in the world because it’s often literally the most polluted city, but it certainly isn’t isolated to Delhi or even India. Nearly 200,000 Americans die prematurely every year due to air pollution too, despite having some of the cleanest air in the world. Among them, it disproportionately affects communities of colour and low-income neighbourhoods. Worldwide, nearly 7 million people die prematurely every single year because of air pollution. That’s more than twice the number of premature deaths caused by malaria, TB and AIDS combined. Air pollution costs the world economy $5 trillion, according to the World Bank, every year in lost productivity and welfare costs.

We, the residents of New Delhi, have been breathing “very unhealthy”, at times “hazardous” air over the past couple months. Diplomats are fleeing the city. Flights are being cancelled. Trains are crashing. Schools are being shut down. Millions are dying every year. Millions more are suffering. It’s literally a “gas chamber.” Often, visibility impairment causes pile ups. Imagine not being able to see the Washington Monument from the White House because of toxic particles suspended in the air. We, in New Delhi, unfortunately, are so accustomed to living with air pollution that when we have a day with good air quality, it’s newsworthy.

Yeah, that’s me. BBQ in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. August 2008.
Yeah, that’s me. BBQ in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. August 2008.

I’m sure your team in Delhi is scrambling to find every air purifier they can get their hands on for your visit. When you joined us in New Delhi to celebrate our Republic Day in January 2015, it was reported that the US embassy bought 1,800 air purifiers and many indoor plants to ensure that your air was as clean as possible.

I believe that your trip to Delhi this week with the current level of hazardous air pollution is an opportunity to raise awareness and potentially save millions of lives in this generation alone. Here is how:

You are one the most photographed people on earth, but none of your photos, yet, could potentially save millions of lives in your lifetime.

I believe that if you wear a face mask while you’re in Delhi and take a photo, that alone could have such a big impact.

This will not only raise air pollution awareness but catalyze action at all levels — from governments investing in more open data sources of air quality to citizen groups taking it upon themselves to do more good old fashioned “community organizing” in their neighbourhoods, not only in India but globally! With nearly 7 million premature deaths every year, it’s not far-fetched that we can make a dent in reducing that number.

Fortunately, air pollution is a winnable challenge, but the world needs a global champion. Mr President, I believe that in order for the arc of the moral universe to bend towards justice, it must also be a world where clean air is an inalienable human right.

I believe that whether you hold your hand against your heart to the Star-Spangled Banner or the Jana Gana Mana, clean air is a basic human right.

Over the couple days that you’re here in New Delhi on this trip, your exposure to pollutants will likely be greater than that of the rest of your year combined. As I type these words, the air quality in Delhi and many other parts of India is hovering between “very unhealthy” and “hazardous”.

In 2007 and 2008, I was knocking on doors and canvassing in St. Paul, Minnesota as a Precinct Captain for your campaign because it was change I could believe in. Now, a decade later, I (and much of the world) still turn to you for leadership — more so now than ever.

Today I’m making a difference by raising air pollution awareness through innovative tech products:

1. Smokey air quality chatbot — Now anyone can get beautifully-designed air quality reports for 62+ countries on Facebook MessengerTwitter and Whatsapp. For example: Text Smokey on WhatsApp (+91–96–5453–8415) and get air quality reports for free. Or tweet “#airairair delhi” to get a tweet reply from Smokey with the real-time air quality in Delhi.

2. Emoji Air Pollution MapThis map translates all air quality data around the world into 19 different emojis. The data comes from government air quality stations, NASA satellites, and WHO databases. Emojis are a universal language that everyone understands regardless of language, national origin or education level.

Emoji Air Pollution Map: (Screenshot from Nov 27, 2017)
Emoji Air Pollution Map: (Screenshot from Nov 27, 2017)

I am still fired up and ready to go. But I can’t breathe. Do you believe that clean air is a basic human right, Mr President?


Amrit Sharma
New Delhi, India