Delhi’s ‘Warrior Moms’ Battle Air Pollution After Seeing Their Kids Suffer
Bhavreen Kandhari of Warrior Moms at a meeting during the UN General Assembly in New York, September, 2023.

Two mothers battled air pollution in Delhi and its suburbs well before it became a thing. Motivated by how their children have suffered,  Ruchika Sethi Takkar and Bhavreen Kandhari speak with Health Policy Watch about why they don’t give up and what other parents can learn from their work. 

DELHI, India – On a gently rolling field of garbage next to swanky high-rises, Ruchika Sethi Takkar bends to look closely at a piece of wrapping. “Sometimes you can trace where a load of garbage came from,” the 51-year-old says, sounding like a veteran detective. She’s standing by the side of a major road in the Delhi suburb of Gurugram. 

Takkar’s no detective nor did she ever imagine that she would often stand ankle-deep in rubbish. She’s the driving force behind Citizens For Clean Air Bharat, a small loose grouping of Gurugram residents.   

Ruchika Sethi Takkar standing on a garbage dump, where she looks for addresses to trace the source. For several years she’s been pushing authorities to prevent open dumping and burning of rubbish in Gurugram.

Bhavreen Kandhari is a more familiar face in India, often seen on national television and quoted in reports about air pollution. Based in Delhi, Kandhari, also 51 years old, began Warrior Moms with a few others. 

Both women aim to improve the quality of air in India, something that more and more people across the country are increasingly concerned about. In the most recent global rankings, 39 out of 50 of India’s major 50 cities were listed as the most polluted in the world.

But Takkar and Kandhari’s journeys began over 20 years ago, at least a decade before the air pollution crisis hit the headlines in 2014 when the World Health Organization (WHO) ranked Delhi as the most polluted city in the world – worse than Beijing, which until then had held the top pollution spot. 

There are striking commonalities in their paths, and Takkar and Kandhari’s learnings may be seen as useful case studies at a time when citizen activism is rising. Be it their organisational approach, their strategies, their negotiations with authorities or even the harsh pushback they’ve faced at times because of their, self-admittedly, privileged background.  

‘My world collapsed months after my daughter was born’

In 2001, Takkar was pregnant and heading an export team doing over $10 million in business annually. Her daughter was born on her 30th birthday. Within a couple of weeks, the new parents realised there were “issues” with their baby. Their doctor advised tests and, when she turned three months, he broke the news to Takkar. She recounts, “He said: ‘Your daughter has mental retardation’. And at that point, my world just collapsed.” =

Apart from the many things Takkar had to deal with, including giving up her job to care full-time for her infant, she wanted to understand what happened. Her doctor said it could be a neurodevelopmental disorder and the foetus had microcephaly, described as a birth defect where the baby has a small head.

Genetic profiling tests gave no indication of what caused it. During her pregnancy, Takkar had been diagnosed with intrauterine growth retardation (IUGR), and doctors noted that the foetus wasn’t growing that well. But the ultrasound didn’t flag anything, she recalls.

Looking back, she wonders whether the fumes from a diesel generator she was exposed to in the early months of her pregnancy could have been the cause. There were power outages at her office and fumes used to “flood in” though she accepts it’s hard to pin blame on this alone. Studies have linked IUGR, developmental disorders and other conditions to air pollution.

Soon, Takkar’s baby developed frequent respiratory ailments and had to use a nebuliser. It made Takkar aware of their surroundings. At the time they lived a short drive from a massive landfill in east Delhi. 

“I was aware that there is something in the environment also which is not helping. It was known that Noida [a suburb in east Delhi] has much more industrial pollution even next to the residential area. But still, I had no idea about municipal laws and environmental laws. All I knew was that the children were now being diagnosed a lot with asthmatic conditions.”

November 2023 saw average PM 2.5 levels in four cities including Delhi hit a five-year high.

By 2011, Takkar’s family had shifted to Gurugram, bordering south Delhi, to an up-market residential complex. But she frequently noticed a burning smell and was in for a rude surprise. It was waste being burnt next to their complex from their complex that had been dumped there by the builders. The rude surprise wasn’t just this but the apathy of some of her neighbours. One of them told her: ‘Why bother, you can just pop a medicine’. 

The following year Takkar started a group called Malba Hatao Movement (‘Remove Garbage Movement’.) It drew her into a maze of red tape and direct contact with three major government departments – the district administration, city municipality and building regulator. 

Three long years later, she had her first success when two departments banned the burning of waste, Takkar proudly recollects. All she had done was read the rules. “There came this realisation that the law is there, but for it to work you need more voices.”

Takkar’s biggest breakthrough came when she managed to get the top bureaucrats of the three departments into the same meeting in November 2015. They had one agenda: to stop waste burning in Gurugram, and they agreed to start pilot projects. 

Before setting up this meeting, Takkar made progress with two other stakeholders. First, more residents began to see waste burning as a health risk not as a solution to waste. She conducted over a dozen roadshows which meant taking residents to garbage dumps to drive home both the problem and solution. 

Her second success was using the simpler and more sidely understood word, pollution:  “The press kept focusing on the seasonal factors but not the persistent local factors which I had started coining as pollution because nobody else was picking up the word ‘civic deficiencies’.” 

However, eight years later, waste burning remains rampant in Gurugram. Takkar and other citizens frequently complain either directly to officers or on social media, tagging top ministers and the press. If there are any gains from those years of activism then it is that the administration is more responsive – although whether their responses are sufficient is another matter. 

In 2016, Takkar started a new group, Citizens for Clean Air Bharat. A loosely organised collective with no funding or organisation structure, the group frequently reports open burning to officials and politicians in charge. 

‘Something not right’

Bhavreen Kandhari in front of Delhi’s iconic Jawharlal Nehru Stadium.

Bhavreen Kandhari’s advocacy for air quality began earlier, after 1995 when frequent trips between Delhi and New York, enabled her to compare the air quality.

“I started kind of feeling that there is something not right in the air. And when I go from here to there [New York], you feel more energetic, and (it’s better for) your skin, and your hair,” said Kandhari, who had begun reading up on the Great Smog of London and California’s battle with air pollution, but could not get data about Delhi’s air. 

After 2002, things changed for Kandhari. Her twin girls were born prematurely at just six months and weighed 600 grams each and spent several weeks in hospital. From their first year, they began getting coughs and colds. 

“After three to four years, I realised that their colds and coughs don’t go away easily. They start around the same time year after year,” she said.

But when the children were taken to New York, from “the moment you land there, (their coughs and colds) would go away magically. The elders would always blame allergies. But now I was sure. This is something really about the air.” 

Around 2007-08, she participated in small protests outside India’s Ministry of the Environment demanding policy action for clean air – but there was little resonance amongst the public or the press, which she blamed on the absence of data. 

That information gap began to be addressed around 2011 when a Delhi-based think-tank started advising Kandhari. The tipping point for her clean air advocacy came after the WHO’s 2014 shock listing of Delhi as the world’s most polluted city.

‘Elite’ protest

Kandhari and a few other organisers decided to protest in the heart of Delhi, at a designated protest spot near Parliament in November 2016. While a couple of hundred people showed up, some of them arrived in diesel SUVs which are notorious for spewing pollution. “Many of our cars were photographed, and the media said that they are the elite mothers coming for this thing.”

The elite tag is something both Takkar and Kandhari have faced from several stakeholders. Both are self-funded, and both their fathers were in government service – one in the top bureaucracy and the other in the air force. Both belong to the ‘cream’ of civil society, and are urbane and well-off. And both could see that their approach needed to change. 

Kandhari admits the protest with SUVs “was my game changer. I thought that yes, this movement cannot be elite, it has to have masses with us. The biggest mistake I think I was making those days was not writing much in Hindi.”

Takkar says she was already working a lot with Hindi newspapers. She positioned the air problem and her campaign simply, as a “dhool aur dhooyen ki kahaani” – a story of dust and smoke – something that’s tangible. 

Providing a template for complaints

Widening the social net took their work to a new level. “What I could sense is that if government officials think that only a few people are bothered about it, then they don’t think it’s a problem. Then they think it’s your fetish, it’s your pastime,” says Takkar.

The outreach led her to adopt a new approach for those approaching her with pollution complaints. “That’s where my time goes, just talking to people and then telling them how to go about it. What bothered me was they would expect me to solve their problems. I said: ‘It can’t be done this way. I will give you a template. This is the number, this is the email’.” 

Kandhari says that, as she has been campaigning for clean air for a long time, she can help others. “Air pollution is a problem in different cities. But I can’t manage that. I have no resources. I can just connect people.” 

It led her and a few others to set up Warrior Moms in 2020, ironically because of blue skies instead of haze. The COVID-19 lockdowns showed how removing cars and several other sources of pollution could lead to blue skies. 

“It was the world’s biggest experiment, you know, a natural experiment showing us that it’s the emissions and it was so easy for us to prove. But we couldn’t go out.” 

Warrior Moms was born out of this need. It grew from a core of about five groups to almost 20 today with a membership of over 1,700, especially when pollution is high. ‘

But it is all voluntary work. There’s no structured membership and people can join or leave depending on their requirements. It’s essentially now a knowledge and support network as more people, including top personalities, voice their concerns about air pollution. 

Cricket stars troubled by air pollution

During the recent Cricket World Cup hosted by India, air pollution levels started to peak. India’s cricker captain, Rohit Sharma, expressed concern about air pollution in Mumbai when he landed for a match: “Looking at our future generations, your kids, my kid, obviously it is important that they get to live without any fear. Every time I get to speak outside of cricket, or not discussing cricket, I always talk about this. We have to look after our future generations.” 

England’s Joe Root, said following his team’s defeat to South Africa in Mumbai. “I’ve not played in anything like that before,” Root had said. “It just felt like you couldn’t get your breath. It was like you were eating the air. It was unique.” 

The teams playing in Delhi were worse off. The comments forced the organisers to acknowledge the poor air quality in Delhi and Mumbai. 

After 20 years with little progress, why not give up? 

Since Takkar and Kandhari began their advocacy work,  air quality has barely improved especially between October to March. The waste burning continues, and they have little or no financial or logistical support. Why don’t they just give up? 

For the first time in an hour-long interview, Takkar pauses. Her eyes well up. “You know, you just need to live with my daughter for a day. She’s getting nothing back from this society. Nothing. Yet, I think you have to make do with what you have.” 

After another pause, she continues: “There is always somebody out there who is weaker, who is getting affected. So we need to recognize, I think just by virtue of the fact that we are alive and we have some abilities, we have to do better for our lot.”

The Gurugram mom wants fellow residents to ask questions about their welfare. “We have data which is coming in about the non-communicable diseases (NCDs) growing, your own loved ones… you don’t have answers, where did (that) cancer come from?

“I don’t think anybody should give up. But yes, I do feel exhausted now, especially with the courts and all that,” Bhavreen Kandhari says, referring to her work petitioning courts to protect trees in the Capital. 

Kandhari speaks of tense times at home when her husband’s business hit a rough patch. They came through that but she’s determined to continue accepting that she’s not indispensable. 

“Everyone’s looking towards each other. I’ve always looked up to so many people. That’s how people are looking up to me. And how can we do this? How can we allow… I mean, if I’m angry, I am angry that, yeah, what you said, 20 years. And my girls are turning 20 and I have not been able to give them clean air and only damaged lungs.” 

Image Credits: Chetan Bhattacharji, Respirer Reports.

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