This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Melba Pría. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

We Have A Choice Between Choking And Breathing

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?

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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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

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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