As science begins to intersect with art, music and now literature, an unusual session at the recently-concluded Jaipur Litfest featured three scientists discussing air pollution through the filter of a grief memoir written as a personalised narrative about the human cost of air pollution. It demonstrated yet again how toxic air is seeping not only into our bodies but also our minds.

Such intersections are not new – and that is the good news.

Art installations have already acknowledged the scourge of air pollution. In 2016, Shahid Parvez’s colourful three-dimensional artwork “Do I Need to Say Anything” at the India Art Fair had caught my attention as had Spanish artist Lucas Munoz’s arresting installation at the then newly-restored Bikaner House the same year.

There have been several others, though none as stark as Munoz’s dynamic installation, a simple white muslin cloth wrapped around a bamboo frame with 21 fans sucking Delhi’s air and blowing it through the cloth, capturing the city’s particulate matter in its warp and weft, its weave turning grey, then black over a period of 30 days.

The installation, artfully mimicking what the city’s air does to our lungs was aptly called “Delhi Lung” and even the Lancet medical journal found it important enough to write about it.

Two years later, along a similar concept, large-scale installations of human lungs outside Delhi’s Gangaram Hospital and other public areas across the country followed, showing, not just telling people what the air is doing to their lungs.

In 2019, a photography exhibition called “Breathless” demonstrated through pictures and journalistic notes what air pollution was doing to an entire population, some of these events hidden from even those of us who had made it our business to educate ourselves about this health hazard.

The same day, singer-songwriter Ankur Tiwari released his song on pollution, Dhuan Dhuan, a haunting melody, which spoke lyrically of missing stars in the smoggy skies of a polluted city, of burning eyes and suffocating breath, of inhaling smoke from burning crops.

And now, coming up this month is Hindi theatre, the Singrauli Files, based on Avinash Chanchal’s representation of real-life people battling large power and coal companies for their environmental rights in that once-green, now-polluted region.

Making science understandable

Many books have been written about air pollution, but they are mostly scientific texts written by experts for experts, although some, like Beth Gardiner’s Choked, Tim Smedley’s Clearing the Air and in India Siddharth Singh’s The Great Smog of India, have tried to simplify the science and bring it down to a more understandable – and conversational – level for ordinary people.

This is very important, almost as important as the science behind air pollution itself. Communicating the science, simplifying and amplifying credible evidence and research is the first step in our fight against pollution. Unless the science becomes easily understandable for ordinary people, awareness – and outrage – about the harm dirty air causes to health will grow fast enough, empowering them into action.

This is also why I was thrilled to see pollution show up as a shadowy character in Deepa Annapara’s book Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, as Jai, her young protagonist from a smoggy slum turns amateur investigator searching for a missing classmate in a polluted city. For fiction, this is just the beginning, I hope.

The bottom line is that it is imperative to bring the science behind air pollution out of the confines of labs and research organisations and communicate it clearly in an accessible way with ordinary people. We need conversations on air pollution embedded in our literature, art, film, theatre, business and games in easy to understand terms. Unless air pollution is discussed at corner tea stall alongwith talk of corruption or unemployment, it will never become a true electoral issue.

Simplifying the science is one thing, which is what Singh’s The Great Indian Smog aimed at. Personalising it takes it to the next level. Personal stories capture public imagination more easily, and literature has the ability to catalyse the power of public opinion, leading to stronger political engagement and a more specific demand around issues.

Thatis exactly what Breathing Here Is Injurious To Your Health is attempting to do. Like art, theatre, music and film, personal stories tend to engage people faster.

Decoding recent reports

Since Breathing Here is Injurious to Your Health was released in November 2020, at least ten news reports on how air pollution impacts our lives have caught my attention. Three of them are reports on new studies which individually link air pollution to health harm –anaemia, infertility and even blindness. These do not scare me any more.

They are much like the thousands of older studies that I had sifted through while researching for my book on the health harm and human cost of air pollution and I have become inured to their impact. In for a penny, in for a pound, the cynical part of my mind thinks.

A fourth report that said that long-term exposure to even low levels of air pollution increases the risk of heart and lung disease did succeed in alarming me, but again, only briefly. In India, we have normalised high levels of air pollution, and first, we must bring the hazardously high levels to low before we start worrying about long term exposure to low levels of pollution, I reason to myself.

I already know that almost the entire country lives in areas where air pollution levels are higher than the “safe” limits set by the World Health Organisation – 99.5% in 2019, according to another recent study.

The fifth was a study, conducted by the Central Pollution Control Board and Indian Institute of Technology, worrying, even for a hardened air pollution survivor like me, because it showed that air pollution in previously less polluted regions of India is growing at a faster rate than the existing culprits of Delhi and the Indo-Gangetic plain. It also pointed out that pollution levels are rising faster in rural areas.

This satellite image from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows smog lingering over New Delhi. Photo credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/AFP

These facts still have the ability to alarm me and familiar feelings of despair and rage begin to swirl around me as I read more details.

Goa has the highest increase followed by Odisha, Kerala, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh – and rural areas are getting as polluted as urban areas. These were the havens to which aware people have been moving their families, I think sorrowfully.

I wonder if those already living in these areas where pollution is increasing so fast are already beginning to experience increasing health harm, or, like the proverbial frog in the pot in which the temperature rises only gradually, they will not know how close they are to their end until it is too late.

The sixth of these, a study conducted by the Indian Council for Medical Research in association with the Public Health Foundation of India, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the United Nations Environment Programme looked at economic losses that pollution causes. Published in the Lancet Planetary Health the report went beyond the association of air pollution with multiple adverse health outcomes and focussed on the economic impact of pollution.

It says the economic loss due to lost output from premature deaths and morbidity from air pollution is 1.4% of India’s GDP in 2019, equivalent to Rs 2,60,000 crores. In addition to translating the health loss into an economic cost, the study validated that 18% of the total deaths in the country – around 17 crore – were attributable to air pollution in 2019, definitely a much higher number than deaths caused by Covid-19.

I had cited similar studies by the World Bank in my book, but it was rare to find the Indian government itself validating such numbers independently.

Ratcheting this up one level was the seventh news report, a broader piece on climate change by Bloomberg, that said extreme weather was putting almost $84 billion of Indian bank debt at risk, with 87% of companies saying that climate risks have affected their operations.

Financial institutions are beginning to understand that climate is the biggest risk to businesses in the long run, the report said. But coming back to India’s air pollution and its link to global climate change, it was the eighth report I read, one that should disturb every environmentalist in the world.

Local pollution, global effect

The Finnish Meteorological Institute, the University of Washington and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found that Asian – specifically, Indo-Gangetic – emissions explain much of the black carbon events over the Arctic region. Basically, the report showed that 75% of the aerosol absorption over the Indo-Gangetic Plain comes from black carbon or soot.

This soot reaches the Arctic region through undiluted pathways, sticks to the ice, turning its surface darker, which thus absorbs more heat, thus melting the ice faster, the report quoted scientists as saying.

More than any other, it is this report that made it crystal clear that the effects of India’s air pollution can no longer be confined to its own shores and the health of its own people. India’s air pollution has become a global problem.

Yet, as one of the experts at the Jaipur LitFest panel, Alastair Lewis, Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry at the University of York, said, although India can and should seek inspiration from other countries that have succeeded in cleaning their polluted air before us, we should not blindly import their solutions. India needs local solutions for its unique mix of dirty air that take account of local contributors.

India’s air pollution has become a global problem. Photo credit: Himanshu Sharma/ AFP

Now, thanks to low-cost sensor technology and spatial data, measurements, meteorology and research at a hyperlocal level are possible, to which unique hyperlocal solutions can more easily be designed and applied.

Lewis also emphasised that although air pollution and climate change are intrinsically linked, it is important to differentiate between the two.

“Air quality is much more within the control of local populations and people can practically do something about it to drive change, actions that can show results within a few years,” he said, reiterating that designing solutions for particular locations was key. Another way of thinking global, acting local.

Anumita Roychowdhury, Siddharth Singh and Alastair, the scientists with whom I found myself sharing a platform at the Litfest, had chosen to work on air pollution. With me, it was the other way around.

Air pollution chose me. Like it chose Rosamund Adoo Kissi Debrah, the mother of nine-year-old Ella Roberta who died from asthma triggered by diesel fumes in one of London’s poorer neighbourhoods. Debrah fought hard to get air pollution included on her daughter’s death certificate. In a landmark judgement, she finally won in December 2020. I had interviewed her for my book in July 2019.

Her victory was followed by another court ruling, this time by a French court that stayed the deportation of a Bangladeshi immigrant, an asthmatic. In confirming this Bangladeshi man’s residence permit renewal, the French appeals court made legal history by taking into account environmental conditions in the applicant’s country of origin, The Guardian reported, thus creating the first legal air pollution refugee.

These reports of the two court rulings are game-changers as they finally officially acknowledge the severe health harm air pollution triggers in humans – to the extent of being fatal. We should be talking about these rulings more, writing stories, creating art, music and games around this. Because, tomorrow, it could be us.

Jyoti Pande Lavakare is an independent journalist, co-founder of clean air non-profit Care for Air and author of Breathing Here is Injurious to Your Health: The Human Cost of Air Pollution published by Hachette in November.