A week after the country celebrated Diwali on October 30, North India is grappling with record-breaking levels of pollution, which have turned the Capital into a gas chamber. The Centre for Science and Environment research institute has said that Delhi is facing the worst smog in 17 years.

Air pollution in Delhi has many causes. These include the burning of stubble on Punjab's farms, industrial emissions, the exhaust of trucks and old vehicles, construction dust, trash burning and the use of wood fuel. The residue of Diwali fireworks is just one part of the toxic matter in Delhi’s air.

Despite this, activism against air pollution in Delhi – both online and offline – has got a new lease of life in the wake of the festival. Appeals are sprouting up on the petition website Change.org, imploring the government to take steps to clean the Capital's air. On Facebook, groups are exhorting residents to gather to demand a healthier environment.

The calls are already being answered. On Saturday, around 300 people gathered in Gurugram with placards that read "Clean air is our birthright". On Sunday, students, parents and doctors congregated at Jantar Mantar in central Delhi to demand that the Union and state governments deal with emergency urgently.

A demonstration in Gurugram on Saturday to demand that the authorities take action to improve air quality. Photo: Rhema Mukti Baxter
A demonstration in Gurugram on Saturday to demand that the authorities take action to improve air quality. Photo: Rhema Mukti Baxter

Just a week after Diwali, a petition on Change.org started by Delhi resident Akshay Gaur titled "Ban on crackers for the well being of the environment, the sick and the coming generations" had gathered over 60,000 signatures by Sunday evening. “The statistical figures are horrific and if we don't take action soon, we might as well initiate an apocalypse,” the petition says.

Gaur’s petition is addressed to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, Union Minister For Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi, Government of India, Delhi Pollution Control Board and Central Pollution Control Board. “My eyes are burning and it's impossible to breathe,” commented Drishti Harpalani, one of the signatories on the petition. “Think about the people with respiratory issues? Think about the animals? We all need a healthy environment to start with, we all need clean air to survive."

Added Snigdha Patnaik, a signatory from Bhubaneshwar: “The air we breathe is our responsibility, we should not turn it into poison for a few seconds of joy.”

The Change.org site hosts another petition by Kush Kochgaway, who wants the Delhi government to frame an action plan to curb pollution in Delhi. "We have never seen the smog in Delhi grow so thick," he has written. "We are not even safe in our homes. There is a layer of smoke hanging in our houses."

His petition had notched up more than 22,500 supporters by Sunday evening.

Facebook users are also discussing various courses of action. “Can we file an appeal to ban fire crackers in Delhi?” asked Facebook user Madhav Shriram on the group Air Quality in Delhi. Another user’s 12-year-old son has written a letter to the Supreme Court Chief Justice urging him to ban firecrackers.

The Gurugram demonstration on Saturday. Photo: Rhema Mukti Baxter
The Gurugram demonstration on Saturday. Photo: Rhema Mukti Baxter

Citizens against air pollution

Many of the campaigners rallying Delhi's citizens have worked for years as professionals or volunteers in related areas, particularly on the issue of waste management, which might help obviate the need for burning waste.

A Facebook event titled "People Against Air Pollution" asked residents of Gurugram to gather on Saturday to hold a public meeting with posters, messages and a public address system. The plan was to sign a petition and hand it over to the Gurugram District Collector at the end of the event.

Around 5,000 people had shown interest in the Facebook event, with 1,000 promising to attend. The actual turn-out was only around 300 citizens. But these citizens came prepared for a discussion on everything from waste segregation to forming volunteer groups for a clean-up drive of the city.

With an emphasis on decentralised composting, Vineeta Singh, one of the organisers, said villages around Gurugram had traditionally been segregating their waste.

"If we need to stop air pollution, we need to begin by segregating waste at the household level," Singh said.

Pooja Goel said she needed to use air purifiers at home for at least eight to nine hours to ensure a peaceful night's sleep for 10-year-old daughter, who is recovering from a lingering cough and an ear infection. In April last year, Goel's daughter had a massive asthma attack. From pranayam breathing to air purifiers, Goel said she had tried everything to ease her daughter's symptoms. She was now attempting to help clean the city's air.

A crowd-sourced Google document listing ideas for dealing with the problem, created by Nikhil Pahwa, editor of the Medianama website, has been shared widely by Twitter users. Some of the suggestions are:

“If possible, change the time when you are outdoors. Kids should not be playing outside at any time. No morning walks, no major physical exercise. Pollution is particularly high early in the mornings, late in the evenings.”

The Gurugram demonstration on Saturday. Photo: Rhema Mukti Baxter
The Gurugram demonstration on Saturday. Photo: Rhema Mukti Baxter

Helping Delhi breathe

In June, Delhi’s government had announced a policy to increase the use of solar energy in the city, by generating nearly 1,000 megawatts of power by 2020, and ramping up to 2000 MW by 2025.

The Help Delhi Breathe campaign is pushing for Delhi to adopt rooftop solar panels, so that the Capital can reduce its dependency on burning fossil fuels for electricity. The 21,000 follower-strong Help Delhi Breathe Facebook page, is a coalition of organisations that was formed last year to mobilise citizens across the city to help tackle the crisis.

“We are digital campaigners: we use social media channels to put out information," said Reecha Upadhyay, the organiser of the Masked Protest in Jantar Mantar on Sunday. "We also work with partners to mobilise people on the ground." The campaigners were able to get over 80,000 signatures that asked the Delhi Health Minister to put out real-time health advisories during high pollution days, she said, which may have pressured the city to decide to shut schools down when indicators get especially grave.