Early Career Perspective: Farah Thakur

Farah Kazi currently works as the Lead of Campaigns at Waatavaran, where she undertakes air quality monitoring studies. She also builds communication strategies that enable public dialogue and advancement in policy reforms. She has recently been selected as an OpenAQ Ambassador. Her interest in air pollution stems from when she began working at IndiaSpend, where she spent a significant part of her time analysing and visualising air quality data. A former Biotechnologist and Data Visualiser, she pursued her post-graduate diploma in Social Communications Media at SCM Sophia College, University of Mumbai, after graduating from Dr. D.Y. Patil University, Navi Mumbai.

Find her on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Note: This is a guest blog and the piece has been lightly edited for brevity.

12 Years Later, Nothing Has Changed

All it took was 10 days for a pair of faux lungs installed at a busy junction in Kharghar in January 2021 to turn black. I was disturbed because when we set it up, I never expected it to turn black so soon. I have been living here for more than 10 years. Is this how my lungs look? The very thought brought back some unpleasant memories.

In November 2009, it had been ~ 2.5 years since we shifted base from Mumbai to Navi Mumbai. For the first time that day as I was on my morning walk, I came back with a burning sensation in my eyes, nose and throat. Within a span of 2-3 days that escalated into a sinus infection, accompanied by a cold and a terrible cough. In many of firsts that week, I needed a doctor to diagnose my condition that had resulted from a spike in air pollution levels. A couple of days later, I learnt through news articles that several housing societies in the area had lodged a complaint regarding the release of gases from the Taloja MIDC area and the concerned authorities had taken the necessary measures to address the problem. 

Today, 12 years later, nothing has changed. The smog and pungent smell continue to plague the entire Kharghar-Taloja-Panvel belt.

Whose job is it anyway?

Though I first experienced the health implications of air pollution in 2009, it wasn’t until 2016, when I joined IndiaSpend as a Data Visualiser, that I actually began getting to the core of the issue. I spent hours analysing data and understanding the various patterns. Besides the manner in which air quality is monitored in India, one question always bothered me — what next, and how can this issue be fixed? There are three major reasons to why the issue of air pollution remains unaddressed in India, even today:

  1. In a country where millions struggle for a meal a day, air pollution is certainly the last thing on their mind. Hence, it isn’t surprising that before the second wave of COVID-19 left the entire nation gasping for breath, air pollution was often perceived as an elitist issue. It is only now that people have started seeing things differently.
  2. ​Continuous and accurate air quality monitoring is crucial because you cannot solve what you cannot measure. There is a need to penetrate and/or intensify monitoring in tier-2 and tier-3 cities, where air quality is as poor or maybe even worse than in metros. In addition, data monitored using satellites, continuous ambient air quality monitoring stations and low-cost sensors needs to be streamlined to have a better understanding of the spatial and temporal trends of air quality in a city/region.
  3. Air pollution spans across sectors. This means one needs to get a whole bunch of stakeholders together to formulate and implement effective and inclusive policies. This sure is a herculean task, but not impossible. I have seen the power of collective action first hand. In my one-year stint at Paani Foundation as a social media executive, I have seen thousands of villages transform by overcoming the barriers of gender, class and even religion. They were united by a single passion, the passion of making their villages drought-free and water abundant.

Air pollution is a collective public challenge and it can be resolved only through collective and collaborative efforts.

Does India’s air quality require CPR approach?

India’s air quality quite literally needs CPR. But here I am referring to Waatavaran’s CPR (Campaigns-Policies-Research) approach. This includes awareness campaigns and action-led research, through which we are striving to influence the policy level decisions that would lead to the formulation of effective and inclusive policies. 

Here’s how we used the CPR approach effectively and what we achieved so far through our work in the Kharghar-Taloja-Panvel belt.

Action-led research: Access to air quality data can be a powerful tool for transformation. It provides citizens with the information they can use and empowers them to make better daily decisions regarding the safety of outdoor activities. It makes the authorities accountable. It also helps to track the progress of implemented policies. In the absence of air quality data in the aforementioned region, we decided to do a one-month air quality study by deploying five low-cost, real-time PM2.5 sensors. Not only did this provide evidence of poor air quality in this region, but also revealed residents had to breathe in polluted air for 17 hours every day.

One of the major impacts of this report was that citizens now became aware that going for a morning walk may do more harm than good. Several of them changed their timings to ensure they don’t go for walks when it’s highly polluted. Awareness Campaigns: A month after releasing the Air Quality (PM2.5) Monitoring Report we decided to show the health impacts through a powerful visual public installation — ‘The Billboard That Breathes’. A giant pair of faux lungs was thus installed at a busy junction in Kharghar, Navi Mumbai. It took only 10 days for the lungs to turn black.

Residents were now furious, which meant they began asking more questions and even taking action. Several residents filed individual complaints on the MPCB online complaint portal. Members of the Kharghar Taloja Colony Welfare Association (KTCWA) along with members of the MPCB did an inspection of the entire Taloja MIDC area to identify industries that were flouting norms.

Policy-level Decisions

The release of the air quality study and installation of the lung billboard within a span of two months received a lot of media attention as well as community support. Therefore, enabling us to conduct policy-level discussions with greater ease. The effect was such that three new CAAQMS are going to be installed in the Kharghar-Taloja-Panvel belt. While Panvel Municipal Corporation has given a ‘No Objection Certificate’ to install a Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations at Kalamboli. The plan for two others in Kharghar and Taloja is underway.

In closing

Replication of the CPR approach is not only possible but is absolutely necessary. Only a good combination of academic research, public awareness and engagement with policymakers will help to achieve policy-level transformations that will benefit both the community as well as the environment.

Having said that, it’s not as easy as it sounds. It requires tremendous effort and dedication. Formulation of effective, affordable and sustainable policies don’t happen overnight​. So, one needs to be incredibly patient and persistent when working in the space of air​ quality. It’s a long and arduous journey, one that doesn’t yield immediate results. But when it does, there is nothing more rewarding. 

Lastly, I want to reiterate that the problem of air pollution cannot be resolved by working in silos. So, connect, collaborate and be a part of change!

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