R L Srinivasan lives in a neighbourhood in Chennai that is surrounded by the sea, a river, two thermal power plants, a coal terminal and petroleum refinery. A fisherman and kabbadi champion, Srinivasan knows the air pollution sweeping his surroundings will destroy his beautiful neighbourhood until people start fighting the mammoth danger.
Breathless, a photography exhibition that opened in Delhi on June 5, begins with the chilling story of Ennore in Chennai where the nature and people are at the mercy of hazardous pollutants. The show combines Srinivasan’s fight with those of others in places such as Chhattisgarh, Punjab, Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru to portray the awakening of resistance by ordinary people against air pollution.
Mounted at the Bikaner House near the sprawling India Gate, the exhibition brings together stories of eight people in six cities to document the struggle for survival in the face of rampant pollution. Based on more than six months of research across the country by photographer Ishan Tankha and journalist Aruna Chandrasekhar, Breathless is a wake-up call to society about air pollution threatening lives and livelihoods in the country.
“It’s always been ‘ordinary’ people that have led the fight on issues like these,” says Delhi-based Tankha. “They may not always be successful or get the best platforms to be heard,” he adds. The independent photographer, who spent weeks with the eight protagonists of air pollution resistance, believes resistance by ordinary people is significant. “For most of us, it’s incredibly difficult to change our lifestyles, even if we want to in theory, to give up things that make living in cities easier, like air conditioners or plastic bags or a vehicle each for everyone in the household,” explains Tankha.
The show documents the fight of adivasi sarpanch Shivpal Bhagat in Korba, Chhattisgarh, who reached the National Green Tribunal via video-conferencing to seek remedy for diseases brought by coal mining. Another activist, Laxmi Chauhan, in Korba has been threatened for suing the big polluters. Breathless shows the fight of Anita Dhole in the fishing village of Mahul in Chembur, Mumbai, a toxic industrial blindspot filled with refineries. Dhole’s struggle is for fellow villagers, who were forced to live in Mahul after they were displaced from Tansa by a new water pipeline.
“It was very important to include people in our narrative, who are part of the resistance and attempting to fight back specially from the smaller towns,” says Tankha, who also met Nirmala, a union leader for civic sweepers in Bengaluru who are vulnerable to both the city’s notorious dust pollution and inhuman contractors. The exhibition also has a virtual reality film When Land is Lost, Do We Eat Coal? directed by Faiza Khan, about the impact of coal mining on villagers in Korba, Chhattisgarh. The exhibition also tells the poignant story of Atul Kumar Jain, a businessman in Delhi’s Shahdara, one of the most polluted neighbourhoods in the national capital, who has been diagnosed with lung cancer. Jain’s young son Samyakk was forced to quit school to take care of his father’s business. There are also images of the ‘masked avengers’ of Korba, young women and men on motorcycles who cover their faces with pieces of cloth to escape coal dust.
Part of the campaign against air pollution by civil society group Help Delhi Breathe and environmental coalition Clean Air Collective, Breathless aims to bring other cities, smaller towns and villages too, apart from Delhi, the most polluted capital city in the world, on the agenda. “Delhi needs a solution so do other cities,” says Help Delhi Breathe’s campaigns manager Nevdha Malhotra. “The fight against air pollution is not getting the attention it deserves from the society and governments,” adds Malhotra. “Plans against air pollution are not ambitious enough and there is no serious commitment to do anything.”
The organisers hope the five-day exhibition, which opened on World Environment Day on June 5, will travel to other parts of the country. “We are planning to mount the show on the ghats of Varanasi next,” says Malhotra. The theme of World Environment Day this year was air pollution.
The author is a freelancer