#MyRightToBreathe: How Successive Governments Have Failed Us

Health News
4 min read

About twenty years ago, as part of one of my first jobs, I was expected to campaign against bursting fire crackers. The argument then, in 1998, was that fireworks made no sense – they polluted and involved child labour. Our focus was primarily on Diwali, something no one was offended by. The campaign had already begun before I joined, but it needed to be strengthened periodically. The Department of Environment of Delhi subsequently took over the campaign with great gusto.

At that point, I imagined, with the conversation around air pollution making news quite frequently, that 2017 would not be this way. I assumed that I would be able to breathe clean air in my own city.

Now, no longer struggling with a first job, no longer that naïve or so incredibly young, I stand shocked at this catastrophic failure of our many governments to ensure our safety.

When I agreed to write this piece, my idea was to ask what we would have done to clean up the air in the last one year, instead of depending on the pleas of three wheezing infants in the Supreme Court. As I thought about 2016, I slipped into the last two decades. So, what could we have done in these decades?


We Did Nothing About Public Transport

Delhi pollution levels spiked last year to the worst they have ever been.
(Photo: Reuters)

I believe we made one big error to begin with: We did not turn Delhi into a city where public transportation was the easiest, safest, or the cheapest option. We should have clamped down on private cars, particularly on diesel vehicles, by making it unaffordable to park and drive. We could have limited the vehicles registered.

We shouldn’t have been so obsequious to the rich automobile industry, or even sensitive to their pressures. We should have paid attention to our lungs, heart and eyes instead.

We could still make amends. The odd-even system, not seen for almost a year, is not the only answer. We need more buses to begin with. Consider these absurdities.

The DTC – Delhi Transport Corporation – needs about 11,000 buses. It has just under 4,000 functioning buses. Not a single bus has been added since 2010, and despite much tendering, a small miracle is soon expected: 1,000 more buses will be added to the fleet.

How does any sane citizen even take in this total incompetence? We’ve had Chief Ministers of all political persuasions during these decades, and everyone is to be held accountable for culpable homicide.

‘No Non-Smokers in Delhi’

It is no joke that eight people die every day on account of air pollution in India.

We don't have the numbers for Delhi, but doctors working with the citizens’ campaign, #myrighttobreathe, have been emphasising how much worse their patients’ lungs, and heart have become in the last decade.

“There is no non-smoker in India,” emphasises Dr Arvind Kumar, of the Gangaram Hospital in Delhi. What an irony for a country that has banned – with reasonable success – smoking in public places.

Delhi has served a thoroughfare for goods trucks, with their intense diesel pollution. They are being diverted now via two bypasses, but we didn’t have to wait two decades.

Drowning in Dust

Men ride a motorcycle through a heavy dust storm along a road in Greater Noida on the outskirts of New Delhi on 23 October 2012.
(Photo: Reuters)

The same applied to dust, a key contributor to air pollution. Delhi today is significantly paved over, with CPWD and the Delhi PWD cementing every blade of grass, and choking ancient trees. An official I was hoping to persuade to stop this, mentioned that it all “looked much more neat and clean” this way.

Regardless of the aesthetic choices, science tells us that trees, and several types of bushes and shrubs, trap dust well. Instead, we used the Commonwealth Games Funds to plant the wrong plants (such as ornamental ficus), pave over grass, and become dependent to sweeping machines to clean up the dust.

How is that even viable?

At the cost of making a tough plan, I would propose un-cementing trees in Delhi, order only indigenous plants in public spots, and identify, ward by ward, where we can plant shrubs, even if it means de-cementing some spots.

More broadly, instead of chopping off bits of the Delhi Ridge, as the government allowed for the Vasant Kunj Malls, the city has to safeguard it as a source of life for us all.


Our Murderous Air Pollution isn’t being Treated for the Killer it is

It isn’t enough to think of the two issues when we have so many more wish-lists from the past. One could talk about campaigning intensely against fireworks, every year, and prohibiting their use on Diwali, weddings, New Year’s and other occasions, so no one has to go to the court. All this points to one big disappointment: Our murderous air pollution isn’t being treated for the killer it is.

Our Chief Minister hasn’t spoken about it; he hasn’t addressed us. Every evening, as I undertake that boring ritual of nebulising so I can sleep soundly, I realise that the fact that lakhs of people like me cannot breathe doesn’t matter to the Delhi Government, at least not enough to care. If it did, we would see and experience better macro-policies after the yellow smoggy air we were forced to inhale last year.

(The writer is an environmentalist and writer. She is the founder and director of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group. The views expressed above are author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same. )

(Breathe In, Breathe Out: Are you finding it tough to breathe polluted air? Join hands with FIT in partnership with #MyRightToBreathe to find a solution to pollution. Send in your suggestions to or WhatsApp @ +919999008335)

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