The media was all over India’s air pollution emergency a few months ago. The hazardous air in New Delhi, where I used to live and still frequently visit, was thick, burning, nauseating, and choking.
Now, those weeks of hell on earth seem like a distant memory, except that Indians continue to live in unsafe air, every day. Every day, air pollution levels range from “Unhealthy” to “Severe,” and the public and media have stopped crying out.
Over the last few months, I have grown to realize that as a Californian of Indian American, if I want to understand the process of acknowledging and fighting air pollution, I do not have to look too far back, nor very far away.
My parents were among the major wave of Indians that immigrated to California in the late 1960s. Newly married, they settled in Pasadena, where my Dad worked at Cal Tech as a post-doc, and my mother learned to raise a family in America.
I wonder if they noticed the air they were breathing. This was when the U.S. made critical decisions to enact far-reaching laws against what was then choking air pollution. Decades of activism, civil lawsuits, local leadership, and major political will, much of it led by Californians, helped pass the 1970 U.S. Clean Air Act.
If not for the activists, researchers, and policymakers behind this law, I may have been born and raised in an America breathing the kind of highly polluted air India experiences now, every day. Whenever I return to the U.S. after breathing New Delhi air, I am grateful to the Americans who fought for cleaner air, for all of us.
Forty-seven years later, rapid urban development, the recent wildfires in California, and seasonal “Spare the Air” days remind us that our communities are still vulnerable to harmful air pollution. Disproportionately, poor and racially segregated communities still live in unsafe air.
Still, at least here in California, many groups believe we can do better, and work to do so. I wish Indian researchers, environmental activists, and community leaders would find a way to move the public to fight for the air pollution action it requires so urgently.
What from California’s approach to air pollution could India find useful? India’s foremost goal should be to achieve safe and acceptable air quality standards. In the U.S. in 1970, no one knew about PM2.5, the harmful particulate matter component of air pollution. Over the last few decades, U.S. authorities, responding to research, now acknowledge that even minimal PM2.5 exposure can be harmful.
India’s annual PM2.5 standard (40 mcg/m3), not revised since 2009, far exceeds the safe standards established by WHO (10 mcg/m3) and the U.S. (15 mcg/m3, with research calls to decrease it further). Lacking proper air quality targets, Indians cannot expect nor hold their leadership accountable for achieving clean air.
Next, India needs a unified action plan that all Indians can understand and support. The U.S. Clean Air Act along with state legislation, was admirable for clearly defining clean air goals and strategies. A people’s movement for clean air, led in major part by Californians, pushed it through. India, in contrast, has announced three different air pollution control plans covering Delhi alone, marked by interstate and state-versus- national political conflict. Lacking a unified roadmap to clean air, India’s leadership is failing to engage the public to act. As a result, the majority of Indians remain silent and even apathetic.
Ultimately, India needs empowerment that it can and must fight air pollution, every day. No leader has convinced the public of how, or when, the air will be clean. The government recently staged a two-week Clean Air Campaign in Delhi, and then announced that as a result, air quality had significantly improved. Yet data showed the transient improvement, comprising 2 days of “Moderate” air pollution, coincided with significant weather changes, including higher wind velocity. Subject to this obvious misinformation in the mainstream media, thinking and caring Indians fall into deeper resignation that the solutions are nowhere in sight.
My now 69-year old mother-in-law and 70-year old mother visit India every winter, which to me, rather than peak tourism season, is now peak air pollution season. Every year, I anxiously await their return, hoping that their routine onset of burning eyes, sore throat, and cough does not turn into something worse.
We cannot take our ability to breathe clean air in the U.S. for granted. We in California are the beneficiaries of many others justifying, demanding, and implementing a higher standard of clean air, for decades before us, and for decades to come. I only hope that we can inspire people in India to do the same.
(Dr. Gita Sinha is a Stanford- and Harvard-trained Indian American physician. She is a volunteer for Care For Air India, an independent New Delhi-based citizen action group acting to raise awareness and promote evidence-based solutions against air pollution. Her family is based in California, and she lived and worked in New Delhi until the air pollution forced her to move back. — Editor)