Clean Air Starts with Us : Empowering the Next Generation

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Vehicles and people moving in the streets amidst heavy smog. Photo: Shutterstock Vehicles and people moving in the streets amidst heavy smog. Photo: Shutterstock

Back in 2018, one of my mentors, Dr. Amrita Bahl, who was also a senior colleague on the board of Care for Air, held up a glass of muddy water and another of clear water and asked which one I would drink. Naturally, I said the clean water. She then asked me, “If you won’t drink dirty water, why are you alright breathing dirty air? We are meant to drink merely 2-4 liters of water a day; but we breathe 12,000-13,000 liters of air on a daily basis.”

Earlier, I used to think that climate change was not real and believed it was not my problem to deal with. Things changed when in 2012 my physician told me that my seasonally recurring allergies were due to prolonged exposure to Delhi’s hazardous air.

My curiosity-piqued. Further research confirmed to me that air pollution was silently killing us all. According to a Lancet study, air pollution resulted in 2.3 million premature deaths in my country (India) in 2019: that’s over 250 deaths an hour. The more I read, the more I was left aghast. Innumerable studies worldwide linked air pollution to significantly higher health risks and vulnerability to COVID-19, Diabetes, and Parkinson’s, to name a few. The short-term effects include headaches, burning eyes, and bronchitis, amongst many others —all symptoms you would find someone or the other unknowingly complaining about in their Delhi offices or schools.

The causes are well-known: increased anthropogenic activities (vehicular emissions) are heightened by seasonal factors (stubble burning and firecrackers). The higher emissions combined with meteorological phenomena (heavy and slow-moving hot air, and changing wind currents) trap Delhi’s air, rendering it a gas chamber.

Shocked by the damage that Delhi’s air was wrecking, and inspired to make a difference, I shook myself out of my climate-denial slumber. Air pollution was my awakening, and what followed was a 10-year journey of my increasing focus on all things climate as an activist, campaigner, consultant, and policy advocate for cleaner air.

Championing the clean air agenda needs broader support and it needs young people to demand their right to clean air. Over the years, here are some personal, national, and global examples which show how and where youth can contribute:


Building Awareness & Inspiring Action Through Youth-Led Movements

 ‘Swachh Chetna’ an initiative I started in 2016 along with a few civil society organizations and student volunteers, focused on conducting awareness, cleanliness, and plantation drives in partnership with the Delhi Metro. While such initiatives have become mundane, the strength of this project was in being inclusive and taking the message to the masses. Our initiative had a volunteer base of over 500 students from across private, public, and non-profit schools, who, through their performance of flash mobs and street plays at Delhi Metro stations, would capture the attention of the otherwise unabashed commuters. The diverse crowd of commuters would often stay back and ask about different facets of the climate crisis and learn how they could get involved. The initiative was eventually stalled due to COVID-19, but it reinforced the strength of youth-led movements that can break the mundane and inspire change. 

Youth Shaping New Priorities for Policymakers

Driven by societal outcry around inaction on Delhi’s polluted air, recently, a small bipartisan group of politicians came together to form ‘Parliamentarians for Clean Air’, in a bid to tackle one of the country’s biggest crisesair pollution—which harms health, the economy and the country’s international image. They released a compendium in March 2023 to enable their fellow lawmakers to keep an eye on the variables influencing the degree of air pollution in their districts and look for solutions to improve the way government programs are carried out.

The youth in our society, who are the voters of tomorrow, need to push for our policymakers and Parliamentarians to emphasize climate and environment in their election manifesto. We need to demonstrate that choosing leaders who care for climate matters and elevate this as an important electoral issue.

Grow Your Tribe and  Drive Policy Changes

In 2016, a group of lawyers filed a Public Interest Litigation regarding Delhi’s noxious air on behalf of their toddlers. They succeeded, and for the first time three infants managed to pull off something that older people and veteran campaigners had failed to do—- firecrackers were banned. I was so inspired by their success in indirectly shaping policy, that I decided to do more. For over a year during the pandemic, I led a team of 40+ volunteers at Care for Air, a non-governmental organization working to combat air pollution in India. My team and I conducted awareness sessions on air pollution with schools, colleges, Residents' Associations, and retirement homes.

By no means are these solutions one-size-fits-all. Nonetheless, given their limited success in one of the world’s most polluted cities, they are certainly a good starting point for those of us trying to do our bit to address the pollution problem. Last year, I was a part of the World Bank’s event on South Asian Youth Speak Up: Combating Air Pollution, where young voices from all over the region shared their concern, their efforts, and their solutions for clean air. From technological innovation to pushing for policy change to driving localized efforts that can make a difference, as young people, we need to lead by example and herald society.

This blog contributes to our #EndAirPollution initiative, aiming to gather youth-inspired solutions for achieving cleaner air. Abhiir Bhalla, our guest blogger, is a dedicated youth activist with a strong passion for addressing air pollution issues in India.


Abhiir Bhalla

Youth Environmentalist and Advisor GUEST BLOGGER

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