We Have A Choice Between Choking And Breathing

Posted by Melba Pría in Environment, Health and Life, Staff Picks
December 13, 2017

We have survived an infamous smog crisis once again, but to ensure that we do not experience this saga come next November, it is necessary to maintain public attention on air pollution for the entire year.

What is considered “normal” in Delhi is not okay. A “normal”, clear day in our city, rounding the 200 – 300 range in the Air Quality Index (AQI) scale, would be considered over and beyond the highest phase (phase 2) of the emergency program by the government of Mexico City.

I have received several queries regarding how, as a diplomat, I handle the problem of air pollution. We must act on air pollution, not for the sake of diplomats, but for the 19 million people who inhabit this capital. Diplomats, after all, will shift to a different place after a few years. Yet, there will be a price to pay for uncontrolled air pollution of the likes we have been experiencing, and this bill will not be borne by diplomats, or by any people my own age. It will be imposed on the children and youngsters of India.

Air pollution is much more than just a scratchy throat and red eyes. Air pollution kills. The recent study by the Lancet Commission concludes that 16% of all premature deaths around the world can be traced to air pollution, three times more than all deaths caused by AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Out of the 9 million people who are dying from this scourge around the world, 2.5 million deaths happen in India.

According to the study “India: Health of the Nation’s States” by the Indian Council of Medical Research, the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), air pollution is the second leading health risk factor in the country, after maternal and children malnutrition. The same study concludes that India is one of the countries with the highest levels of exposure to air pollutants. Impoverished, disenfranchised, and marginalized communities are disproportionally affected by air pollution diseases.

No one will have a death certificate that specifies air pollution as the main cause of death, which is why we may not take it too seriously. Breathing this air has been compared to smoking 45 cigarettes per day. Air pollution causes respiratory diseases, asthma, but eventually, it also leads to heart disease and cancer. Scientific studies may not all agree on the specific relation between air pollution and disease, but all of us who have smelled that foul scent and experienced the discomfort in our throats will agree that experiencing this on an everyday basis will end up taking a toll on our bodies.

Despite this grim panorama, I believe we should not feel helpless. We have a choice; we do not have to roll back and succumb to the fumes. Our capital has a few things it can use to play for its team:

A Thriving Democracy

There is one good recipe for choking to death and that is doing nothing and playing the blame game. This is about swimming together or sinking divided. There is no need for finger pointing during a public health crisis. We do not fight over immunization of children, and neither should we fight on air quality.

India is a democracy and politicians cede to public concerns, when they face enough pressure. Public anger over the month-long smog got a few reactions, including the announcement that fuel quality will be improved before schedule and that some new CNG buses will be added. These are good measures that should be implemented all year long, and not just after a gas chamber compared crisis.

In Mexico City, and I imagine in every city, politics are rough and coordination between levels of government is difficult. In the Mexican context, this was solved with the creation of an institution called CAME (translated as the Megalopolis Commission for the Environment). This council is the certified authority that formulates, coordinates, and follows up on environmental policy that is implemented by the federal government, the Mexico City government, and the local governments of five surrounding states. It reflects a paradigm shift in which the city is no longer understood as a single and independent entity, but as part of a larger chain.

Mexico City was named the most polluted city in the world by the United Nations in 1992. Back then, Dr. Mario Molina, Mexican Nobel Prize awardee in Chemistry who has contributed enormously to the fight against pollution, used to say that “while citizens do not petition their governments, the issue will not remain a priority, and policies will not be implemented”.

Since that year, Mexico City has been commended by international organizations as an example on the fight against air pollution, although this remains a problem that citizens and government must continue fighting every day.

Collective Grassroots Action (it worked for Mexico City!)

The second step in a recipe for choking to death is waiting for the government to do everything for us. What is the role of citizens? Other than pressuring our representatives, nothing stops us from starting ourselves.

We have a car rationing scheme in Mexico City called No Driving Today (Hoy No Circula), which is not exactly like odd-even, but it resembles it because it is based on the last number of a car’s license plate. There are two important differences between No Driving Today and Delhi’s attempts at implementing odd-even. Firstly, No Driving Today restricts cars only one day per week: every last number on a license plate gets a day of the week in which it cannot be driven. The second difference is that in No Driving Today, you can only get exemptions if your car aces a strict emission test, or if you drive a hybrid or electric car. Other than emergency vehicles, there are no other exemptions.

“No Driving Today” has been in place for almost 30 years in Mexico City and over this time, it has experienced changes and updates, and will probably continue to experience them in the future. What you may find surprising is that this car rationing scheme was started exclusively by civil society.

In 1984, a citizen organization that called itself “Improve your City” (Mejora tu Ciudad), formed by concerned mothers and fathers, students, and professionals of all kinds, started the idea to encourage people to leave their cars home just one day per week. They handed colour stickers for cars to people supporting the idea. The movement grew so much that 5 years later, the government adopted it as official public policy.

There are early signs of a similar turning point in Delhi, and it is important for us to support these initiatives. This month, a group of citizens in Gurugram organized themselves to participate in a challenge of one week without cars. Over 300 signatories to this #CarFreeChallenge used sustainable modes of transportation for their daily activities. They documented and shared with the authorities their experiences within this challenge, including lack of public transportation options, but also the many obstacles they faced when trying to walk or cycle.

Indian Quest For Best Technology And Practices

A famous hospital in Mexico City, called Manuel Gea Gonzalez, has a façade equipped with a new type of tech tile called ProSolve 370e that, put simply, eats pollution. The tiles are painted with titanium dioxide, a substance that when it enters in contact with UV rays, can neutralize the pollutants produced by 8,750 cars every day.

We are living in a time in which technology and research can help the fight against air pollution. And what better place to unleash that power than India? India is famous worldwide for the quality of its engineers, its brainpower, and great institutions like the IITs.

The main reason that we do not need to fall into despair is that Delhi is not alone. Some headlines act like this was the first city to live through a tragedy like this. It is not. Mexico City is just one of many cities around the world that are fighting against air pollution. Delhi does not need to learn how to save the world from scratch, it can lean on its friends. There are so many good practices from around the world that can inspire policy here, from transportation, to mitigation strategies, and regulation.

As I have said many times before, it took Mexico City 25 years to improve its air quality, so we can forget about immediate solutions. But we have to start somewhere, and instead of complaining and pitying ourselves, why not start now?