India: air you cannot breathe

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India: air you cannot breathe

India’s air pollution crisis affects millions of people, and not just in Delhi. Aruna Chandrasekhar meets people forced to live in Mumbai’s toxic air.


Children and residents of Mahul at an International Human Rights Day protest against the government. Pratik Chorge/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

They don’t show you the haze in Bollywood movies. But it is there, over Mumbai’s skyscrapers.

And they don’t tell you about the smell. But everyone from Mumbai knows it. There is sewage, Bombay duck (a kind of fish) drying in the heat, exhaust from traffic jams in which people spend 11 days a year, landfill refuse, dangerous chemicals, coriander in the open-air markets...

In 2018, World Health Organization said Mumbai was the fourth most polluted city in the world. Mumbai is the media and financial capital of India. But because it is not Delhi, the government gives Mumbai’s pollution crisis very little attention.

India's towns are full of people and so Indian cities will have 400 million more inhabitants by 2050. Green spaces are getting smaller and smaller with so much new building. Roads are jammed with more and more cars.

At the beginning of 2019, Mumbai had only two air-quality monitors for 20.4 million people. Since June 2019, there are eight more. It is not clear what these new monitors will track. Experts say that they are in green districts, and not in crowded ones. This gives a false picture of the air breathed by the city’s poorest people. But there are now more and more protests for the right to breathe.

Palace of dreams

Many of Mumbai’s people lost their homes and had to move. Some of them lived in the east of the city, on both sides of the old pipeline bringing water from Tansa Lake to Colaba. The pipeline is almost 100 kilometres away from Colaba. Colaba is the city’s southernmost and richest area and has the financial district.

The city’s courts and leaders think these people are squatters and were a danger to Mumbai’s water. They said they had to move to the city’s very polluted suburb called Mahul. No one asked them or talked to them about it. Over the years, 60,000 had to move to Mahul.

40-year-old Anita Dhole watched a bulldozer destroy the last part of her district by the pipeline two years after the people first started to lose their homes. She said,‘It was a small district but it was our palace of dreams.’ She lived in an apartment in Mahul for one year and then she left to join at least 100 people in an open-air protest camp on the footpath on the other side of the road. A chalkboard showed that this was the 39th day of the protest. Who would want to do something like this?

‘If we go, we’ll go to a new house,’ said Anita. She is part of Mumbai’s Save Homes Make Homes movement. It is fighting against mass evictions and trying to stop the authorities moving the poorest residents to the edge of the city. ‘Here on the footpath we have clean air, clean water. What do we have there in Mahul? They just left people there.’

She passed around a thermos of strong tea and then took the microphone. ‘Chief Minister, wake up,’ she shouted. ‘Wake up, wake up,’ say 60 women. The authorities said they were a danger to the water pipeline. Here on the street, they lift their saris to show me the rashes, boils, and blisters on their knees and backs from the pollution in Mahul.

Mahul residents have recorded 200 deaths since they lost their homes – from cancer, asthma, and tuberculosis. The government says there are only 88 deaths. But te government certainly knew the truth. A 2013 survey by a government hospital found that over 67 per cent of people in the neighbourhood complained of breathlessness. ‘Hitler sent people to the gas chamber in Germany, that is what the government is doing with the poor in Mahul,’ said Anita.

The problem is in all of India. On 6 December 2019, India’s environment minister Prakash Javadekar told parliament that there was no link between air pollution and a shorter life. But the medical journal The Lancet and the WHO said there would be more than one million deaths every year from air pollution in India. In recent years, the government has relaxed regulations to make it easier for more polluting industries. Again no one talked to the people about it. Eighteen per cent of these industries do not have air-monitoring systems, as required by law.

Three mineral and power-producing states that supply cities like Mumbai have only one air-quality monitor between the three of them. Very polluted districts, such as where British metal company Vedanta is, have no monitoring of their pollution data. None of these industrial towns or zones are in India’s National Clean Air Action Plan, which is mostly in Delhi.


Residents of Mahul are forced to live in a polluted industrial area. Credit: Ishan Tankha

View from Hell

There are tankers with ‘highly flammable’ on them along the one road leading to the Mahul housing projects. Teenagers play cricket surrounded by three oil refineries and 15 chemical factories. They don’t seem to know they are breathing polluted air.

Some Mumbai people might say that the housing in Mahul is not very different from any other housing for the poor. The terrible housing is built so close together that there is very little sunlight.

There are lights on even at midday on the balconies and stairs that connect eight floors of each block. You only see sunlight at the top and a view of chemical and fertilizer factory chimneys turning the air thick.

‘We were welcomed with fire,’ said Anita. ‘The first day we moved to Mahul, the electricity meter was leaking water. Our building caught fire on the sixth floor.’

Before the elevators, she climbed all eight floors with her bad leg as she started the protest to get people out of there. Mahesh Limbachia had to carry his father down four flights of stairs to get him to a doctor. ‘We were against this from day one,’ said Mahesh. For three months after Mahesh and his family lost their home, they lived at the same protest site as Anita. ‘Then the rains came, kids’ schools started, people lost trust in the protest.’

They refused Mahesh subsidized medical treatment for his father because they had no permanent address. So then he became Anita’s biggest ally. Families with loans to pay medical bills listened to him. They had lost their jobs working as domestic helpers where they lived before.

‘When we started, people called us crazy when we went door to door. “Join us or, one by one, we will all die,” I told them.’ Anita points to the big oil refinery with its pollution, ‘If there’s an explosion here, it’s game over.’ On 8 August 2018, there was an explosion in Bharat Petroleum’s refinery only 18 metres from some of the buildings. At least 43 people were injured but the young men on the roof said they saw dead bodies at the factory site.

The explosion and the protests afterwards made people and the media listen to what was going on in Mahul. Community petitions helped the protests. ‘The courts have time for industrialists’ lawyers; they don’t have time for us,’ said Anita.

The authorities had to monitor air quality. They found dangerous chemicals over all the safe limits. Anita and her neighbours were breathing 32 times the level of benzopyrene and 7 times the level of nickel.

India’s National Green Tribunal said Mahul was not safe. They blamed industry for the storage of oil, gas and chemicals. They told the state government to help the communities. But very few people have new homes. Protesters formed kilometres-long human chains around the Chief Minister’s home, until they gave more families new homes.

So much anger

The Mumbai rich and poor were so angry when the same state government, led by Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, cut down over 2,000 trees in the dark at night in the city’s Aarey forest in its northern suburbs. Business people joined local leaders in protest marches and climate strikes.

The people of Mumbai are strong but they have had enough. It is starting to show in their politics. The newly elected Shiv Sena state government is a rightwing party. It is now in opposition to Modi and said that no more forest will fall in Aarey. It will get more pollution monitors even if the government does not pay for it.

There’s one thing that’s certain - the city’s people will fight.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)