Jyoti Pande Lavakare lost her otherwise healthy mother to lung cancer in 2017. The connection of her mother’s terminal illness to air pollution was evident to the clean air evangelist and author of Breathing Here Is Injurious to Your Health. Here, she tells Archana Pai Kulkarni how change begins with each one of us, and why it is imperative to hold governments accountable in the fight for better air.
The very title of your book is the writing on the wall that begs to be acknowledged. Do you think that for most people, apocalyptic events like climate change and air pollution seem unreal and too far into the future?
Yes, and this is exactly why people don’t react and work more urgently to prevent environmental degradation. Until the connection between apocalyptic events and their triggers isn’t more explicit, people will never react with urgency. Mindless growth has changed the character of our air, water and soil. The NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) factor comes into play quite quickly. Environmental factors like air pollution are not just in our backyard, but our lungs, our heart, our bloodstream. Our loved ones - and we ourselves - are dying faster from breathing toxic air. My own mother got diagnosed with lung cancer that doctors said was triggered by air pollution. It hits you when you live it, experience it in your heart, not just in your head.
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The change in air quality was evident during the lockdown. People were breathing easier. How far do you think this positive change has created the kind of awareness and support that is required to maintain that air quality?
The small silver lining of the lockdown assured us of two things: The deniers were able to see not just the damage humans have caused the environment, but also how it can still be quickly reversed. The believers were able to see how efficiently the government can deal with a public health emergency. However, like all bad habits and addictions, it is easy to fall off the wagon. Only a mindful, consistent discipline will help humanity follow its pledge to grow in a green, sustainable manner. But if we turn back to using fossil fuels - the government announced auction of 41 coal mines as soon as the first lockdown was lifted - all living beings on this planet will turn into fossils.
The world is divided into so-called alarmists and realists. How does one bridge this gap and channelise the helplessness and frustration into advocacy for clean air?
I feel it is more of a sliding scale between alarmists and realists. And science and data play a very important role in this division, especially in the kind of post-truth world we live in today. Because pollution kills silently and slowly, people don't recognise this invisible killer. There is a lung cancer epidemic in our country. The saddest thing is that lung cancer is preventable. Today, a newborn in Delhi is a smoker from its first breath. The Delhi Chief Minister calls his state a gas chamber. A shocking fact the book highlights is that children born in the polluted parts of the country like Delhi have smaller lungs, lower lung function and irreversible lung damage as compared to children born and raised in cleaner environment. The only way to channelise this helplessness and frustration that comes from awareness into advocacy for clean air is begin now.
You rue that not much has changed. What do you attribute this indifference to? Why is this essential movement taking so long to materialise?
Most air pollution research sits in silos and isn't accessible to the general public in lay terms. Secondly, pollution sneaks up from behind. The problem seems so gigantic, people feel helpless. Then, at the policy and implementation levels, there is a large lag in seeing the cause and effects. Plus, the belief that economic growth and environmental protection are in conflict with each other leads to vested interests and lobbies blocking whatever progressive changes that governments and corporations begin. The lack of awareness is advantageous to government, because if it becomes clear how badly toxic air is affecting the Indian population, people will begin to question it. The government is ultimately accountable for the state of our air quality.
You were forced into activism after losing your mother to a cause that can be directly linked to the foul air we breathe. The very thought of living and ageing in a dying city described as a gas chamber is making you anxious. How are you dealing with what you call an existential crisis?
Very badly. There are only two things we can do to survive. Flight or Fight. Currently, I’m fighting. But if I get a chance for flight, I may be forced to take it. To know your loved ones and you are dying faster from just living in a certain part of the world is very depressing. I first discovered the ill-effects of air pollution in 2013-14. I myself got a terrible asthma attack in my first winter back after I had moved to Delhi from northern California. By 2014-15, I found other parents like me who were concerned at how pollution was harming their children. We banded together to form a platform we called Care for Air, to spread awareness and build advocacy for clean air. By 2016, we created a 16-hour workshop for high school students to create ambassadors for clean air. But despite knowing so much about pollution's health harm, I was unable to prevent it from collecting in my own mother's lungs and killing her.
Your non-profit platform, Care for Air, has plateaued into an advisory group, and while it continues the vigil, you confess the members may not have the bandwidth or time required to deal with a problem of such magnitude. What keeps you going?
Sheer grit, some shreds of belief in my country, big dollops of hope - and the young people I meet in my journey. India has such bright minds and big hearts, it is heartbreaking to know we are setting up our young for failure. My mother was a Hindustani classical vocalist. She was diagnosed with lung cancer in October 2017. By the time she was diagnosed, her cancer had reached its terminal stage and within three months, she had passed on. But in those weeks and months, seeing her suffer, suffocate, struggle to breathe was traumatic for us, her family. There is no palliative care for not being able to breathe. A very dear friend told me to journal my feelings to help me process my grief. The only way I could make sense of her loss was to write about it. Having seen her passing, I don’t want anyone to have to go through any sort of ill-health just because of the involuntary act of breathing.
With multiple sources affecting air pollution, with construction and combustion being the two biggest contributors of PM2.5 and PM10, and with other hidden delinquents, tackling air pollution is a formidable endeavour. What do you think would be the first effective steps?
Strictly enforcing existing laws, especially in garbage segregation and responsible disposal would be an immediate first step. Clean public mobility and following more ambitious targets for renewable energy - which is now much cheaper than conventional fossil-fuelled energy - would be next. Cleaning the air should be a national mission and included in the Swacchh Bharat mission. How can we have a clean Bharat without swachh hava? How can we make in India and Start-up India when we can’t even breathe in India?
Air pollution is a pandemic in slow motion; yet there has been, as you rightly point out, a colossal failure of governance with every political party complicit. How does one ensure accountability in the face of such indifference?
By voting not just with our ballots but also our wallets. By taking ownership of our own complicity. By being ready to pay for clean air. We can’t use cheaper, polluting fuel. Transparency and awareness precedes accountability. We need to demand this from our governments and our corporates. We need to drive change at an individual, collective, corporate and governance level. What is missing in India is the intention to solve this. Air pollution is caused by several contributors and each of those needs to be addressed in a planned way with policy. Air pollution is a social iniquity - the poor are more affected than the rich, but are less aware. The externality of air pollution - profits are booked privately whereas the health harm is shared publicly and collectively - skews potential solutions and allows lobbies to flourish. We need to change that. It is already too late for us, but maybe we can still save our children, our next generation.