Pristine, clear blue skies. Clean, breathable air
This is what Indians across the country experienced in the past two months.
The nationwide lockdown that kicked in on March 25 has led to unimaginable chaos and suffering for the country’s 300 million poor, especially communities like migrant workers who set off on foot to traverse thousands of kilometres back to their hometowns. But with millions of cars off the streets, closure of factories and a halt in construction and other economic activity, the period has also resulted in the cleanest air India has seen in over two decades.
While India has 21 of the world’s top 30 cities with the worst pollution, the lockdown brought a steady dip in the Air Quality Index (AQI) with average levels hovering around 60. In cities like Delhi, this number was well over 400 (hazardous) in peak winter.
But should it take a pandemic for us to get clean air?
A new video by Jhatkaa.org, released on the 60th day (May 23) of India’s lockdown, aims to get this message across. Titled #SaalBhar60, the video calls on citizens to participate in a nationwide digital movement on June 5, World Environment Day, by sharing photos from their city demanding “Clean Air for All.” A corresponding petition on the platform asks for the initiation of an autonomous “Clean Air Authority” who will solely be in-charge of reducing air pollution levels.
According to the National Clean Air Programme, India has 122 non-attainment cities — i.e. cities that don’t meet the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Maharashtra tops this list, with 18 cities in the state. The initiative invites citizens from these cities (among others) to participate in the biggest digital movement the country has seen, demanding Saal Bhar 60 — asking the government to put in place concrete measures to ensure air quality in India remains within permissible, healthy standards even after the lockdown ends.
The video features 12-year-old climate activist from Dehradun, Ridhima Pandey, who was one of the 16 children (alongside Great Thunberg) to petition the UN in September last year, on governments’ inaction towards combating climate change. A recent IIT Delhi study states that if the low pollution levels India experiences during the lockdown are maintained, it could bring down the country’s death toll by 6.5 lakh.
“This week, as lockdown norms were eased, the air quality levels in Delhi spiked to 200. This confirms our worst fears in a post-lockdown world — while we saw nature begin its healing process, what comes next? Do we go back to experiencing toxic air, and the serious health repercussions it has? We have made strides towards acknowledging the severity of the problem — as evidenced by initiatives like NCAP. But we need concrete state-wise planning and implementation for Saal Bhar 60 to be a reality. And no better time for that than now,” says Shikha Kumar, Campaigns Manager, Jhatkaa.org
“In the past two months, it has felt like all the things my generation has been fighting were gifted to us — blue skies, low emissions, clean air. This only means that an AQI of Saal Bhar 60 is possible. Our government needs to treat it like the emergency it is, and have strict timelines for bringing down pollution levels. Breathing clean air is a basic right,” says Ridhima Pandey.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us two things. First, that we too can have clean air. Second, how bad air can affect our health, increasing our vulnerability to diseases. Studies from Harvard and Italy have shown a significantly higher number of COVID-19 cases and mortality in areas with high Air Pollution. High levels of air pollution across Indian cities pose a major threat to the wellbeing of our children. We must aim for clean air for all,” says Dr. Arvind Kumar, lung surgeon at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, and Founder & Managing Trustee, Lung Care Foundation
Several environment groups across India including Let Me Breathe, Fridays For Future, Let India Breathe, Greenpeace India, Waatavaran Foundation, Help Delhi Breathe, My Right To Breathe, Kolkata Clean Air forum, Mumbai’s Aarey Conservation Group, Awaaz Foundation are supporting this initiative.
AQI for pollutants
0-50 range: Good
51-100 range: Satisfactory
301-400: Very Poor
Above 400: Severe.