Disclaimers upfront! This is to share my personal journey over the last two years which has led me to question all my actions. It started in November, 2013, while I was training for a long distance race in the cold, crisp air of Delhi. One evening, I started wheezing. No worries, I thought. I'll take a break from running for a few days and shake it off. But what started as a wheeze went on and became a whole lot more -- I
started to get frequent headaches, itching and redness in the eyes, and then my eyes and nose started draining constantly. My box of tissues, fast became an extension of my body.
I started visiting with health professionals -- and as expected they threw the kitchen sink at it -- antibiotics, anti-allergies, steroids, nebulizations and of course, the innumerable blood and pulmonary function tests. Nothing worked - I went from feeling like a 40-year old in the body of a 25-year old to someone who felt terminally ill.
All of this lasted 11 of the longest months of my life.
Fast forward to October, 2014 - I am on a camping trip in the Aravalis, on the outskirts of Delhi and I see an expatriate mom wearing a mask. I was intrigued enough to start a dialogue with her. Why was she wearing a mask? How did it help her? What was the purpose of it? Seemed a bit extreme, however, I was inquisitive enough to research the heck out of pollution masks as soon as I got home. I was desperate and frankly,
willing to try anything.
That's when I read about Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 microns, and it's impact on our body - it was really an awakening as all the effects of living in high levels of PM2.5 matched up with my symptoms. Was I on to something?
From the US to China, doctors in every Country were blogging about a particular N99 pollution mask and so I ordered a bunch of Vogmasks for my family and me.
There is this stigma of wearing a facemask and people used to back away - Jai, all well? You okay? I got these questions everywhere I went. However, I was committed to stopping this PM2.5 from entering my body. I knew I was on to something and I was driven. 3-4 weeks of adopting the mask and my lungs were squeaky clean. I was back!!
Now, I had to share this magical product with folks who were suffering from allergy and asthma. And all those suffering from bronchitis, rhinitis, heart disease, cancer, HIV, pregnant women, kids - they all had to know about PM2.5 and the means of protection. I started blogging; wanting to publicize the rising PM2.5 levels and wanting to let those
who were suffering know that there was a protection at hand. This was right before the Delhi elections in December, 2014.
About this time, the US embassy and consulates in India took a decision to start sharing their data from air quality monitors in the interest of protecting Americans in India.
This was great!! Now we had credible numbers. A quick glance at the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended safe levels of PM2.5 and the levels in Delhi told me that we were off the charts. My God, this is crazy!! Everyone needs to know this. I started blogging passionately and freely, and daily - sometimes even more than 1 post a day.
I started to represent the N99 mask company, Vogmask in India and make it available through a simple website - make it easier for people who were suffering, to find it.
The big milestones in my journey needed to include the WHO study that declared Delhi to have the worst quality air among 1,600 cities surveyed around the world. Then there was the groundbreaking article on February 14, 2015 by The New York Times correspondent, Gardiner Harris - Delhi wakes up to a problem of Air Pollution that it can't ignore. This was huge! These gave me fresh energy to keep blogging to raise awareness.
Fast forward to today where I have acquired sufficient knowledge to be impactful. I think of myself as an activist and a change agent. It is clear to me that we are on a path that is unsustainable. All this economic development at the cost of the environment - just not worth it!! We have to change course.
Now, I come to the title of this article. With everything I know, I have started to question all my actions. I have even come to question tradition - here are some examples of things from my journey:
* I have started looking at single-use disposable products differently. The worst of it is mineral water - we have all gone into a default setting of drinking this stuff and it is a health and environmental nightmare. It is mostly tap water, served in cheap plastic with BPA and/or PVC, which is carcinogenic. Imagine the fossil fuels used to make and transport this bottle to where it gets in your hand and then we drink the water and simply toss the bottle. Two-three crore of these bottles end up in landfills each day -- crazy and completely unsustainable!! This goes for all single use, disposable products.
* I am a Hindu - not really overly religious, but mostly fearful. I find myself repeatedly being invited to havans to clean the air. Seriously!! Now, all the pure ingredients that need to go into the fire are not pure anymore. You are simply filling your home and lungs with PM2.5.
* I recently lost my grandma - may her soul rest in peace. I found myself torn as we cremated her in the heart of Delhi at the Lodhi Crematorium. Hundreds and thousands of bodies are cremated in the heart of the City where next door you have the highest density of people per square mile on one side in Nizammuddin and then the most affluent on the other in Golf links, Jorbagh and the like. Makes no sense!!
* What was worse that we went and submerged her ashes and bones in the Ganges. I know she was a strong, bold woman, very forward thinking, caring, nurturing, binding, loving, not a single bad bone in her body - definitely one destined for heaven. Did I have to pollute the river?
I urge each and every one of you to question your default setting. We all have to!
We're out of safe food, clean water and now we've even run out of clean air! We are so apathetic towards our health and environment. This is a grave problem and a matter of national shame. We are concerned and believe you me, the government is also concerned. We need to pursue a 'Blame No One Strategy' and work collectively to reverse this. Really, what good is economic development and prosperity if our default setting actions are compromising the heart and lungs of our children? One must now find a new default setting, and become more sensitive to issues of health and the environment.
(Jai Dhar Gupta is founder of Nirvana Being, an environment company, and co-founder of NGO, Care for Air. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)