Air Pollution Delhi

We Can’t Breathe: Story of a Pollution Migrant

We have lost the right to breathe fresh air. We must transform all the elements of the take-make-waste system to build thriving cities.
India, Southern Asia

Story by Piyush Dhawan. Edited by Melaina Dyck
Published on May 9, 2021. Reading time: 3 minutes

This story is also available in fr it



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Take a deep breath and hold it for the next seven months because, coming September, all of us in New Delhi will go through the same ordeal that we have been going through for the past five years.  

Runny noses, itchy eyes and throats, stifled lungs: The air is so suffocating and poisonous that we make an extra effort to just breathe!  

There will be blame-games between State Governments, like there are every year. Some reports will be released with startling facts about how we will all die ten years pre-maturely. We will see advertisements for Air Purifiers and Canadian Air. Imagine: the only two things that humans need for survival—Air and Water—are now both sold in containers.

I was born in this city and it kills me seeing my city die! Slowly, every day! Recently, we saw a wave of smart, highly qualified Delhiites leaving the city for better air quality.

Pollution Migrants, they call us! We are left with no option but to leave our city.

10 of the world’s 15 most polluted cities are in India and the world's 10 fastest-growing cities are all in India!  

The economist in me says it’s a great thing—we would be the powerhouse of the world—but the environmentalist in me is skeptical.

With only 1% of the world’s landmass, cities are home to over half of the human population. They account for 85% of global GDP. To sustain this population, and generate all this GDP, cities have a huge appetite. They account for 75% of natural resource consumption, 50% of global waste production, and 70% of greenhouse gas emissions.

I was inspired by a TED talk by Dame Ellen MacArthur who, living alone on her yacht for more than two months, was nagged by the question: how can our world continue to function with the economic model of the last two centuries? MacArthur asked: what if we could not only protect, but actively improve the environment? After hearing her talk, I wondered for weeks: what would happen if our resources ran out? Then, I had an epiphany! I started looking at cities as hidden riches of resources! From buildings to electronic waste, we are surrounded by value.

I imagine cities that are self-sufficient in meeting their material needs–reducing natural resource consumption and waste production. I see cities full of green spaces, providing sanctuaries for people and other species. I see cities as socially inclusive, utilizing the strengths of the millions of migrants who come to them.

I strongly believe that the current system is no longer working for businesses, people or the environment. For decades, India has been competing with China in a race for economic growth! The challenge with such a competition is that there are more losers than winners. We have lost the right to breathe fresh air and drink clean water. We have lost our local biodiversity. The disparity between the haves and have-nots is at its highest level. At this tipping point, we need to decide whether we blindly follow the growth saga or follow a vision that is inclusive and just!

70% of the building infrastructure in India projected for 2030 is yet to be built. Imagine transforming how we manage and use the enormous resources we will need for future citizens. We can mainstream climate and migration into development planning, and address the drivers of poverty and food insecurity. Migration should be a choice. Then, we can create a thriving economy that benefits everyone within the limits of our planet. We have a right to breathe clean air. Let’s build cities that recognize this fundamental human right.


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Piyush Dhawan

Piyush Dhawan

Piyush Dhawan is the Cofounder of the Circular Collective, an open-source knowledge platform that facilitates, activates and enables discussions on Circular Economy in India. He has previously worked with the German Technical Cooperation as National Advisor on Business and Biodiversity and at UNDP India as Resource Mobilization and Partnership Lead for SDGs for a decade. He is a TEDx speaker, German Chancellor Fellow and Alexander von Humboldt Fellow. He has represented India at many international conferences including the European Forum Alpbach (Austria), Global Environment Academy (Oxford), DAAD in Mongolia, Germany and Thailand and G20 Summit (Korea).

Topic: Environment




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