India is home to 14 of the 15 most polluted cities in the world. Particulate matter (PM) 2.5, unlike the larger PM 10 particles, seeps into your lungs. It is so fine — 40 of them can fit across the width of a strand of hair — that it seeps into the blood and floods all organs in the body, causing permanent damage.
The PM 2.5 level in most towns and cities, but especially in Delhi, is several times higher than WHO-suggested levels, as even the government of India statistics show. The same chemicals found in cigarettes are found in the polluted air across the country.
A newborn is, in effect, smoking the equivalent of 25 cigarettes. And the problem is not confined to urban areas. Villages, too, are polluted from the burning of wood, leaves, and cowdung as fuel. In fact, pollution levels in 98% of India are above WHO guidelines.
Three years ago, when Jyoti Pande Lavakare’s mother, a non-smoker who had lived most of her life in Delhi, was diagnosed all of a sudden with stage-4 lung cancer, she heard doctors blaming it on the noxious fumes swirling over the nation’s capital. For years, cardiothoracic surgeons have commented on the rarity of seeing a pink, healthy lung among the capital’s residents.
Yet just 30 years ago, pink lungs were the norm, and black spots were seen almost always only in smokers. Today, doctors say, lungs are scarred from the time of birth so that by age 25, many young people are diagnosed with lung cancer. Staying lifelong in Delhi, the doctors say, amounts to reducing your life by a decade. More than 70,000 scientific papers link pollution with decreased life span. Yet, no death certificate lists air pollution as the cause of death.
Jyoti’s extensive interaction with doctors during her mother’s repeated hospital stays exposes her to scary statistics: half of all doctor’s visits in the capital pertain to respiratory problems; the development of lungs among Indian children is so affected from age eight that most Indian lungs are smaller than those found in China or in the West; chronic oxidative inflammation of organs leads to diabetes, heart disease, pulmonary disease, infertility, cancers, cognitive disorders.
She soon finds that doctors have been aware of the problem for years, but when she asks them why they don’t campaign about it, they throw up their hands in despair: what is the use of complaining?
Jyoti’s book Breathing Here Is Injurious to Your Health, published by Hachette and priced ₹399, alternates between her efforts to comfort her mother and her banding with fellow pollution warriors to found ‘Care For Air’. She harangues officials, school principals and anyone who will listen to take steps to reduce air pollution, all the while having endless fights with her son who wants to play soccer despite high PM 2.5 levels.
As a journalist, Jyoti is able to find scary information about pollution. Her upper class privilege allows her and her family to afford expensive air filters, HEPA masks, and hermitically sealed houses. Her mostly expat friends even relocate to countries with clean air — something that a billion-plus Indians cannot do.
Although the focus of the book is on pollution and her own family, Jyoti admits that poor air disproportionately affects the poor, who do not have access to filters, healthcare or even information.
India’s growth story, with its increasing numbers of power, cement, steel, and coal mines, expanding construction, and need to commute over long distances, is inseparable from rising pollution. But air is a collective resource and everyone is responsible for it. She quotes Ritwik Dutta, environmental lawyer, about the biggest crisis facing the capital city: “It’s not air pollution; it’s the collective ignorance, institutional failure, a culture of denial, inaction and a bloated confidence in technology.”
The book has an exhaustive list of relevant organisations and publications for those who want to delve into the topic or agitate for change. Sadly, she says, successive governments have neglected the problem of pollution. And the current government has particularly diluted every environmental law. Along with COVID-19, air pollution has become India’s twindemic.