“Breathless” in India: Art Exhibit Calls for the PM to Declare Air Pollution A National Public Health Emergency

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New Delhi: On World Environment Day, Help Delhi Breathe and the Clean Air Collective opened an exhibition titled “Breathless: Documenting India’s Air Emergency” to showcase stories of people suffering severe health impacts due to the state of poor air quality across the country, and demand that Prime Minister Modi declare air pollution a national public

health emergency in India. The exhibit will be open to the public from June 6 to June 9 at Bikaner House Gallery, between 10:30 am to 6:30 pm.

Photographed by Ishan Tankha and researched and written by award-winning journalist Aruna Chandrasekhar, the Breathless photo project aims to tell stories that help connect cities to heartland India and sources of pollution, while introducing the audience to ordinary people resisting extraordinary pollution. “We hope to humanise what seems like an amorphous, seasonal and regional problem to many,” said writer Aruna Chandrasekhar. “Fatalism is no longer an option, be it for our government that continues to weaken environmental protections citing development or for citizens who believe their hands are tied. Through this series, we met countless unsung air champions, from coal mines in Chhattisgarh to Aarey in Mumbai and Ennore in Chennai, fighting for India’s right to breathe.”

"Tackling air pollution requires leadership and action at both the national and the local level. We want to make every possible effort to build awareness between how dilutions and violations of environmental policy ties into impact and it’s why exhibitions like these give voice to the feelings and challenges of those affected the most,” said Navdha Malhotra, Campaigns Manager, Help Delhi Breathe.

Ankur Tewari, composer for the film Gully Boy, also scored a track for the Breathless exhibition said, “As they say that one usually wakes up to the problem when it strikes home. So many of my friends have started to move out of their homes in metros to places away from the cities for the sake of their kids. Environment is not just an issue anymore - it’s a deep crisis - that is killing us.”

The effects of air pollution are so drastic that lung cancer has seen a 50% increase among non-smokers in the last 30 years, according to a study carried out by the Lung Care Foundation, a not-for profit organisation focused on improving respiratory health in India. When people talk about the impact of Air Pollution they are mostly talking about the deaths. “They often don't talk about the social, economic and psychological impact of the diseases caused because of Air Pollution. As treating doctors, we see how devastating these diseases are for the lives of those affected and their family members.” Dr Harsh Vardhan, Consultant - Center For Chest Surgery, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital. The State of Global Air 2019 report by Health Effects Institute stated that South Asia was the most polluted hostpot in the world, leading to an average reduction in lifespan due to air pollution by 30 months, while the global average remains 20 months.

Atul Jain, a cancer survivor profiled in Breathless said, “I have paid the price of air pollution not just with medical bills which I could not afford, but also a very poor and uncertain quality of life. I led a healthy life and never touched a cigarette, yet I’m a lung cancer survivor. How is this fair? We are breathing cancer causing carcinogens and this is not a public emergency, then what is?”

Breathless is an effort to give a face to the cost of air pollution, living in remote critically polluted areas but also in cities around us. It stands at the cross-section to bring policymakers, health practitioners, scientists & experts and the wider public to ignite the debate for a public health emergency staring at India. With a new government in power, there is hope for the fulfilment of the National Clean Air Programme and making air pollution a “mission” as promised in the BJP manifesto.

Date: 
Monday, June 10, 2019