Crop burning in Punjab.

These Photos Document the Most Polluted Cities in India (and the World)

"We tend to resort to fatalism and apocalyptic thinking, which ends up letting everyone off the hook. But most people don’t have that choice."

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11 June 2019, 10:15am

Crop burning in Punjab.

In Chennai, Tamil Nadu, Srinivasan—an inland fisherman and a kabaddi coach—has been caught in a battle for the last five years. Not only does he coach the young boys of his fishing village of Ennore, but he is also doing so while fighting for the city's right to breathe. Journalist Aruna Chandrasekhar wrote in 2018, the city's air is “a potent amalgam of ammonia, coal, sewage and diesel, mingling with the salty sea-breeze.” As she recollects Sreenivasan’s ongoing fight against the city’s big polluters, she catches the irony of it all. “He’s fighting the big coal companies as he trains his students to breathe,” she tells VICE.

Srinivasan's story, and that of many others, has triggered Bengaluru-based Chandrasekhar's project with Delhi-based photographer Ishan Tankha, aptly titled Breathless. The project—which includes stories and photographs, and has been organised by air pollution collectives Help Delhi Breathe and Clean Air Collective—brings together compelling visuals from eight Indian regions: Bengaluru, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Ennore, Mumbai, Punjab, Guwahati and Chennai. Some of these cities were listed as some of the most polluted in the world last year, in the 2018 World Air Quality Report released by Greenpeace and IQ AirVisual.

air pollution chennai India
An hour’s drive from Marina beach, Ennore is a dystopian landscape of fishing villages wedged between industry and the sea. Once famous for its kabbadi champions, residents now battle the fallout of pollution wrought by the excesses of Tamil Nadu’s power generation.
air pollution india chennai
Srinivasan, a kabbadi coach and an inland fisherman has been taking on Chennai’s biggest polluters at great personal risk for the next generation’s right to breathe.

Over the last few years in India, the one narrative that has taken over all conversations on the subject of climate change has been air pollution. It’s there on the news, it’s growing into country-wide movements, and, as we speak, it’s right on our faces. Just yesterday, Delhi recorded a temperature of 48 degrees celsius, the highest recorded this month in the history of the city. And as this UN report states, air pollution and global warming are essentially two sides of the same coin. But the story is not limited to just the national capital region.

Chandrasekhar and Tankha started travelling across the country last year in September, and saw not just the physical manifestations of pollution, but also the human cost of it all. “People don’t tend to have much empathy for death tolls dropped alone without context, or for sickness, until it happens to them,” Chandrasekhar tells VICE. “We wanted to portray stories in which people have agency and are taking back power, even if they are confronted with great amount of pollution.”

air pollution mumbai
Mahul is Mumbai’s toxic, industrial armpit that houses petroleum refineries and chemical factories. It is also where families who lived next to the city’s water pipeline have been relocated. "The companies have surrounded this area and they just dumped people in here. Where’s the light? Of course, people will die," an angry Anita Dhole, of the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, tells the Breathless project. "Jao, ab maro (go forth and die), this is what the corporation representatives tell us. If there’s a blast here, Mumbai ka poora khel khatam (game is up)."
air pollution mumbai indi
"The privileged assume that the poor can live anywhere. But we’re not immune. It’s getting to us," Chandrasekhar tells VICE. The protest in Mahul is one of the most powerful ones in the country, in which the survivors are fighting back against the big polluters

The stories, then, take the shape of three categories of narratives. "These are ordinary people battling extraordinary disease, ordinary people taking on extraordinary polluters, and ordinary people who work with the state and are tasked with cleaning up after us. The survivors we chose to profile are across these categories, the landscapes they live in, the key sources of pollutants, and the interconnections with other parts of the country,” says Chandrasekhar, who has been writing on environment for the last eight years.

The project is kind of timely too, with the increasing amount of international attention on climate change globally. But Indians also battle, alongside the pollution, yet another menace: apathy. “We tend to resort to fatalism and apocalyptic thinking, which ends up letting everyone off the hook. But most people don’t have that choice,” says Chandrasekhar. “This is a time for a wake-up call, for people to realise their own power and push for change before impacts are irreversible."

air pollution india Chattisgarh india
With eight power plants in a 10 km radius and some of the country’s biggest coal mines, Korba is a district in Chhattisgarh that keep India’s lights on. In 2009, it was ranked India’s fifth most polluted industrial cluster. The state still doesn’t have a single, real-time air quality monitor recording pollution data in the public domain.
air pollution india
A man cycles past a board for Kusmunda Project in Korba, Chhattisgarh, where villagers have protested against the coal mining.

The photo series also cues in the fact that most discussions on pollution are mostly centred around Delhi. There’s not much national attention towards the serious issues that exist beyond the national capital region. “I get cheesed off when it’s just winter pollution that draws attention and most reports are limited to Delhi and blaming farmers. No one consistently talks about other elephants in the room,” says Chandrasekhar.

air pollution bengaluru bangalore india
"We also wanted to portray stories in which people are empowered even if they are confronted with great amount of pollution," Chandrasekhar tells VICE. This photo was taken in Bengaluru, which has gone from being called the 'Garden City' to 'Electronic City'.

“Politicians don’t have the right to say individual actions matter more. No, it’s policy and that’s solidly in your corner. You can’t whittle down every environmental law, allow the big industry to get away with daylight robbery and say, do a green good deed, fam, and you’re fine”

The visuals instantly stun, presenting a reality of those who are forced to live with pollution, as opposed to the often diluted version that most urban dwellers often live with. Apart from Srinivasan, there’s the story of Atul Jain from Delhi, who has lung cancer. His kids have stopped bursting crackers these days, or take the metro or walk, in order to help the rest of Delhi breathe easier.

india air pollution delhi
From the day Atul [Jain] fell ill, school took a backseat for his son Samyakk Jain (right), who scraped through his last year with barely 50 percent attendance. Within the Jain community, where sons typically follow in the father’s business, it would not be surprising if he dropped out of school entirely. It would still be years too soon.
air pollution delhi
Atul Jain in Delhi

“We wanted to ensure that there is recognition for what has been a pretty thankless fight [for environment]," says Chandrasekhar. "We have come to a point where our conversations around pollution are somewhat fatalistic, especially for those who’re most cocooned. We’re like, yes, it’s the end of the world, what can we do? We carry on with our lives with the hope the apocalypse will go down kindly. It’s very easy for people who have it the easiest to say we’re doomed. But here are some of the most marginalised communities who are taking names, putting their bodies on the line, fighting in courts, mobilising other people, and going to jail for a greater common good.”

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