Dr. Gita Sinha | Promoting Clean Air Activism

I’m gonna introduce myself a little bit
later now I’m gonna ask you all to please stand up we’re gonna do something
totally different I’ve known Anthony and Xena for so long
that they can only forgive me and I will not even ask for the forgiveness today
because I think he owes me big time preparing me for the next five minutes
I’m going to ask you in your small group to meet yourselves meet one another I’m
going to create a mini collective amongst you and I want you to answer
this question amongst yourselves by telling some stories about yourselves
whoever’s willing in this time that we have tell me tell your group a story
about how the air quality has affected you in the last three to four years
simple question just share a story amongst yourselves how has the air
quality affected you in the last three to four years I’ll give you five minutes
starting now get started who wants to share a story from someone
in their group just one or two lines something they learned about someone
else in their group about how the air has affected them yes okay I’ll hand you
the mic so Charlie I’m sorry so she was mentioning about her
four-year-old son and how he’s being affected by the air quality and she’s
one it is Cosmo worried the other is no matter how much she tries to bring out a
remedy like through air purifiers or whatever I mean it’s it’s not like a you
know how many see house you know the child students to go out and play or so
she’s kind of worried about that and that’s why I’m concerned that you know
it’s it’s common everywhere people are worried about their children this
gentleman here told us that he can’t get enough interns to join his office
because it’s in Delhi it’s the price of something as basic as watching a blue
sky has become such a you don’t see clear skies yeah so we were talking and
I think what surprised me that we actually had to think about it we had to
think about how it’s bothering us and then they said oh one of us said food
tastes different and someone else said how does it really affect us you know
our children getting affected but we have to think about it which makes me
feel we don’t be getting used to the fact we’re getting used to the pollution
and that’s the problem because you think it’s all right thank
you all for doing that I know one tells you you will become a
clean air activist when you grow up you’re not born into an Indian American
family in 1973 in New Jersey and told you must become a clean air activist 20
grew up you are told why think about becoming a doctor why
don’t you think about becoming an engineer right that’s the typical story
you hear from us with the American accent who show up at your door so I
want to tell you a little bit about my path to where I am now
it’s all a mixed story it’s a very personal story I don’t have a lot of
projects to share with you other than what I’ve done in my professional life
leading up to this point this to me is a very new chapter in what I’m doing in my
professional and personal life but I feel like and I think maybe reflecting
what Alka said earlier this is almost like a culmination of everything I’ve
learned to try to do with myself up until now and so that’s why it’s gonna
be here for a while first of all I want to go back to the stories you all shared
stories that are about how the air affects you individually and I want to
put out there that the clean air movement in India has a disconnect right
now it has a disconnect between how the air is affecting us personally and how
we talk about the solutions and the scale in which the solutions need to
occur we talk about how we suffer through the air we talk about how it
affects our professional and personal lives sometimes we have to think about
it but we know what we’re having in effect we’re also worried we’re getting
desensitized to it but a lot of the science and a lot of the facts around
air pollution and air quality and its impact on us is at the population level
and it’s purely that it’s science and I just want to show up and how many of
yourselves think yourselves to be scientists scientists that oh yeah I
studied science or I have I have an idea what the
scientific method is all about or that I use statistics in my life to kind of
talk about things a handful of you right okay so I think that the other facts
that I want to put out there for you all to start thinking about is a lot of
science is based on uncertainty and estimation it is not based on the cold
and truth we never know the truth in science and when we talk about air
pollution science a lot of it is based on estimation and uncertainty because
that’s the nature of the study of air pollution and its effect on our health
and that’s yet another disconnect when I hear on the media that there has been a
lung cancer case in a 28 year old woman maybe you all heard about it this week
and that is proof that this air pollution is causing cancer in our young
people the public health expert in me says no you’re wrong don’t talk about it
this way because there is a disconnect between an individual case of cancer and
the epidemiology that says lung cancer is a causative factor for lung that air
pollution is a causative factor for lung cancer in our daily population and the
reason why that is an important distinction is because what do we do
with our facts and science ultimately we want something to change we want
something to happen with a scientific truth or fact and when we use our facts
in a way that doesn’t impact policy or doesn’t impact change or make the air
better for each and every one of us we’ve absolutely failed in this
and that’s where we’re at right now we know a lot we have a lot of awareness
and we have a lot of fats if you all are interested in learning the facts for me
I’m happy to share them with you outside at the top but I want you to just know
that we are at a crossroads in this movement for clean air in India we know
so much we have so much information and yet we are doing nothing with it the air
is not getting better for any of us we will probably live in this quality of
air if not worse quality of air through our entire lifetime so I don’t care how
young you are or how old you are this is it this is what we’re gonna get and if
we want this to change we have to have a long view we have to have a long view to
our children’s generation and perhaps even our grandchildren’s generation to
say we got them clean air and that’s my position on this movement now I’m going
to take two minutes to tell you how I got here I always knew that I was going
to be a physician maybe my mother brainwashed me when I was four years old
I just had it in my head I’m gonna be a doctor I’m gonna be a doctor I don’t
know where that came from I grew up coming to India every summer
since I was 4 the role models in my family were doctors my family comes from
rural northern Bihar from Western party district which many of you in Indian
history that has a lot of significance I grew up seeing my family members
practice medicine in the villages with people who just wanted to get on with
their lives they weren’t looking for anything more other than I’m sick I need
to feel better so I can go back to doing what I’m doing to me that’s the
benchmark in clinical medicine my goal is not you write you 500,000
prescriptions to make it me feel better my goal is a doctor and through my
training is I want you to feel better enough so you can get on with what your
life is all about your life is not about coming to me as a doctor and me solving
your problem your life is about getting on with yourself and that was what I
learned from northern bee hive growing up and that was my principle of how to
practice medicine and I was a very lucky person growing up in the u.s. I went to
the top tier schools I had every opportunity I came out looking like a
really wonderful trained person on paper when I came out of it throughout all of
that I remember and I don’t know where this comes from maybe you all can
reflect on it I have a very strong sense of cultural heritage and history in my
heart I think it comes from all those months I would spend in the monsoon
season in northern be hard I feel like I’m just as Indian as any one of you and
I think that just stems from how my family raised me here and how they
taught me to value what being Indian is all about so I’ve seen all the changes
of how India has modernized liberalized blah blah blah everything that’s
happened and yet I can still tell you that living in America
I feel pretty damn proud of being an Indian person too it led me in my
professional outlook and my ambition to say anything I want to do in my career
I’m gonna try to put a piece of it in India so it started out as a doctor
started out as doing clinical work and training in it yeah and then it evolved
to an understanding that the scale of what we can do in India in medicine and
in health is not so much at that singular level to me I’m not going to
make that impact on the singular level as a doctor so I started training
doctors nurses and health care workers in clinics started going out and doing
very similar approach to what I did with you all I started mixing people up and
saying talk to each other see what you would do to give the best care to the
patients who are going to walk through your door in the next few months or
weeks when we start this clinic up and I saw magic happening in that collective I
saw that he who are healthcare assistants who really
came from you know the inner roads of the cities that we were in to the
highly-trained aims level doctor to the nurses were coming from Caroline to
Delhi and just trying to you know start their living here they were all getting
along they were actually seeing the commonalities in one another and they
were actually coming toward a common mission towards saying yeah we can
actually uphold a quality of care for this patient and see it grew and this is
how we are going to do it so that to me is the first lesson that I would like to
impart is that those of us who come from the outside potentially as you see it to
bring things into places like this I think the best way we can do this that’s
possible is to learn and listen first and then kind of bring out what is
already there and take it forward and that’s how I did it as a clinician and a
clinical educator so then how does that take us to air pollution I ended up
having the privilege of living here with my family for six years permanently I
have a home here I still maintain it raised my children here I’ve brought
them when they were four months old and three years old and I started them in
school here I started them in a local school here because I felt so strongly
that I was not going to live as a foreigner in this country I was going to
struggle it out and I was going to learn how to be here like anybody else would
be admittedly in my socio-economic bubble that brings me here we lived here
I had no idea how about the air was when we lived here
those were 2009 to 2015 nobody really talked about the air back then what we
did realize back then is that we were living in the most polluted air in the
world in those years and how did I learn that fact I was driving or being driven
to work from Gurgaon to noida day and I was listening to the All India
Radio they do the English news and they do that in the news right after English
news comes on it’s like 8:30 in the morning
the w-h-o just announced that Delhi ranks number one for the most polluted
air in the world and then the Hindi news comes on and there’s not a single
mention of that and I’m looking at this situation that I’m thinking why is it
happening that I’m hearing this on the English news and not on thinking be news
I actually had a little discussion with my driver about this because I was like
you know did you just hear what happened because he is much better obviously than
this English but they just told us this in English but not this in Hindi so why
is that happening so that was my first red flag that some things out here and
we need to do you know do some more investigating not one month later my
then nine year old child started getting sick asthma attacks a nine year old
healthy child does not get asthma attacks out of the blue there’s some
trigger and to me undoubtedly it was exposure to undue amounts of air
pollution that were going on in the locality at that point my husband had
actually got an opportunity to leave India professionally and I really fought
it out with him c9 Anthony know this story I was so upset I was feeling like
I actually really want to stay here because I had so much to do and he was
like nope we’re getting pushed out we’re getting transferred out and then my
child got sick and so then I looked at the situation and I said you know what
I’m not justified and staying here anymore I can’t do this to my kids
knowing that this is the trigger for what’s going on and so we love but I
kept coming back I took it upon myself as a an obligation as a public health
professional the clinician and in fact has an Indian
to say we have to do something about this crisis here because it does affect
us personally the numbers and the statistics may not impress us very much
anymore in fact I feel we are incredibly desensitized to the fact of what the
statistics are the magnitude of this effect of air pollution on us is almost
so big that we can’t even get a handle on it when I tell you
1.2 million Indians will die of air pollution this year
does that really trigger any emotion in you does it when I tell you if you had
clean air you could live for up to one and a half to two years longer in your
life does that give you any trauma doesn’t mean you jump up and say yeah
I’m good but that’s where the science is at
that’s where the science is at that’s where the policymakers are looking to
actually make change and it’s not impressing them enough and it’s not
getting any of us where we need to be going to me I feel that the effort has
to be at our level where is it affecting us where does it hurt us where does it
make us suffer and then how do we push for the change that we wish to see is it
going to be at the individual level where in the upcoming diwali season you
will actually say to someone please don’t set off that pitaka this year are
you gonna say it I don’t have the answer for you but is that where it will move
you is it going to be where you go to your residents society and say let’s
segregate our wastes because it could actually make an impact on the garbage
burning and everything else that’s affecting our air quality is it gonna
affect you enough where you go to the influential industrial contacts that you
have until you know what we really need to make more inroads on this vehicles
emissions policy and can you please step it up and move it forward first as I’m
suffering here I don’t have the answers for you I think we’re all going to have
to do what we can in our own ways to make this happen and I’ve
even spoken about this to the Indian American community and said you know we
come here we love it we go shopping we eat we have a great time but you really
care about what’s actually going on here what are you going to do about it
care for air is a non-profit it started about four to five years ago it actually
has got started by a close personal friend of mine and I joined it because
it was an avenue for actually making some voices heard we’re a
multidisciplinary group of people where scientists were journalists were lawyers
we’re public health professionals we’re doctors atmospheric pollution scientists
if you could believe there’s such people out there where in my world kind of a
think-tank with a lot of professions a potential big tank with a lot of
potential we know the facts but our challenge before us is how do we
translate the facts to make action and change we work on it through a couple of
models so far we’ve done a lot of school outreach we do a lot of awareness
building with schools and school teachers to teach them here’s the
quality of the air here’s how it affects your health frankly I think that’s kind
of fallen flat because of the some of the issues you guys have talked about
the other Avenue that we’re taking that’s a fairly new model which I am
hopeful will have a little more potential is we breathe leave people
together and we do case studies on what’s going on in the real world of air
pollution if I had presented you a case study saying last year the Health
Minister said nobody dies of air pollution don’t panic how would you
respond to the Health Minister that would be an example of a case study that
we would do and everyone from their different vantage points would share
their ideas but we would guide them through the idea
through an advocacy framework where we would actually give them a framework to
say here’s the way to strategically think about your response to this rather
than just saying this really stinks the air is rubbish
I can’t deal with this I can’t believe he said that rather than just stop there
how do you take it a step forward and say who do I need to reach with my
message what is the goal of my message and how do we do it and then what’s my
communication strategy for doing it now we might take this kind of process for
granted because we pitch people we present our findings we do a lot of this
kind of work every day but a lay person may never have been taught this kind of
critical thinking about how do you respond to a statement and so our goal
now organizationally is to start building that creative and Klip critical
thinking process in people’s minds because the message and the actioning is
entirely their own we can’t give the blanket solutions to these issues it’s
all from where your places in this movement how much you care and then how
much you’re willing to take forward within it and that’s what we’re leading
on in terms of a model in in reaching out to people rather than just sharing
the facts the facts we can give to you as we do this model but what we really
want to get started is that you’re thinking so I’ll stop at that I hope
that gives you an idea of where we’re at and kind of the top that gets people
like me here and thank you for your attention and I’m happy to take you I have also thought about climate change
at all in college that was eating his back so the environmental movement was
at its height having graduated and started practice not one word in the
language I used to describe my work as anything to do with climate change
increasingly I am going to colleges and not showing my work at all and just
talking about climate change essentially because I think that that level that
crisis along bail needs to hit our heads as designers because we are actually
molding aspirations and we have the ability to shift the super-rich from out
of a recognition boxes and onto the street and show them the benefits of
doing that while working ground-up at the same time it needs to be attacked
from working with not your right you can’t really wait and we can’t wait for
things to fall into place and you need to force our government to be a lot more
serious about climate climate change and air pollution by voting which means we
need to address 87 90 % of our population which is not in the cities I can only agree with everything you said
and that’s probably why I feel grateful for a chance to speak to a group like
yours because it just is maybe a chance for everyone to think about this from
their vantage point coming to a forum like this because we all have a way of
thinking about this it’s not just a personal issue it is a professional
issue it’s a matter of how is our society going to go forward in light of
what’s going on is it how you teach about it and integrate it into your
educational philosophy and what you think about now is it in how you design
is it in how you just talk about it with your family and
I have no expectations of anyone to say this is how you should do it I’m very
humbled by my time in India because I know that I can’t tell anyone to do
anything I mean it just doesn’t work that way anywhere in the world even as a
doctor I know that you have to bring it out of yourselves to decide what piece
of this is yours and what are you going to take forward with it
um I think that we need to not rely on lessons from the industrial world to
define what happens here we have to lead on this the world is going backwards I
can first can’t tell you that because I live in an industrialized city of the US
and we are going backwards and every time I read the paper there I look and I
say oh well if we could only make a way of this working in India and everyone
else would just shut up and this would actually get on with it we are a country
of leaders and like you said communicators we can actually move
people so much more easily than we can in the West and if we in our vantage
points with our skill sets can take the lead on this I think we actually have a
lot to teach the rest of the world I learned that in medicine I learned that
in public health I certainly believe that of climate change and I don’t think
we need to go through the process like you said of repeating the mistakes I
feel that the rest of the world really takes advantage of India look at the
fuel that we get from the rest of the world to come and power our vehicles
here I bought an American car when I moved here making okay LBM
by my American car the fuel standards and emission standards for that American
car were twenty years back from what I was doing with the same American car in
the u.s. wish I had known that because I probably would have rethought what I
would have bought why do we have to have this why do we have to stand for this
I really believe firmly that we are also being taken advantage of by people who
look at us and India as a bagel 1.3 4 billion person market and if we put
restrictions on access to our market here we actually have a chance because
money talks we all know that I mean if we actually start thinking of ourselves
as a market that we actually have a chance to influence how other people
look at us of what they share with us as a person a strategy I decided that I
would never ever share on hackneyed story but only shared the successful
happy smallest to largest no matter what it had to be a great story and I didn’t
imagine lands and then it’s we’re not changing our names but in fact thousands
of people’s lives there are so many much champagne and I can’t even count or
nothing it is the number of Champions and I must be like the world because it’s the kind of extremely
militant about it and I’ve dragged well for a couple of shows right
Spivak true islam and i have taken them to the village of you spoken to nothing
i don’t see that buying you there because I think the systems are
completely failing them and ignore diversity ignores the poor everybody you
know suppose we just they don’t exist for anybody I think that is where the
big disconnect is and if you get a dying from that strata of society a lot of
things will change but I am also speaking in terms of solidness
management because they do not commute and they don’t have cars and they’re not
adding to that kind of pollution but it’s itself it’s not the waste and maybe
they’re adding that which is the big door you know they’re using firewood for
that you know so I just wanted to share this that I think sharing of happy
stories my everybody no matter how small when they do you know like Tony’s
biggest publicly closer to the metro station so that is stop anything it’s a
story out of this and share it with everybody it’s a story I mean no
somewhere that the pain of the graphic design
the least loving name as you know is transformed into a story Aloha
looking for my stories that you know people can talk about and share and I
think that changes the universe I learned the power of stories when I
trained as a doctor because a patient was always telling news and I got
fascinated by the narrative of a patient telling a story because it maybe it was
the literature kickin me I I mean I did a minor in humanities because I loved
literature but it was just that when you hear the story there’s always more right
and how do you frame that story and make it something actionable that’s what a
doctor really should ideally do so when we talk about the power enough to
anything great I’m sorry I’m not sure why this is um there is power in a sad
story too we all know that think about the most
powerful film or books you read that are sad I think that the goal of a good
story is to spark some emotion in you because it’s only in my belief system
about pedagogy and people when you wake people up if it
inspires a bit of emotion then then you finally have an inroad to reaching them
in a different way it should be connected to what they’ve done yes
and from that sad story can come a happy story yes yeah that to me is very key
just like what she said is when you have it linked to action and a change when
you can tell that story that’s what our advocacy workshop is all about we start
off by asking them tell us the story about when you made a change let me tell
you a happy story that came out of our first advocacy workshop a young in
Canada attended he’s 11 standard kid step by step right up
he came in and he said yeah I really suffer from asthma and so last Diwali I
decided I was going to do something about this firecrackers issue so I
invited all the people in my colonies with Diwali party on Diwali night and I
said the only ground rule is were not setting off fireworks we’re just having
a big old party this is an 11th standard kid he did this not a single thought I
work was set off in his colony that night it was just his idea he said I
have to fix this because I’m gonna get sick
what stopped everywhere God all the parents got everyone together and so I’m
just doing his that was the first thing we heard before I even taught them
anything so imagine how much lies within us to have a positive story and take
that forward and everything from there was all about well how do we make change
and learn from one other to make change so did you talk about storytelling and
there is an area like a little more systems thinkers around and a lot of
times when trying to build a communication strategy and you can get
down to the personal side of a commercial side of theater a tangible
kind of a story but I’m sure a good half but visualizing your stories or building
like a greater narrative which is it’s more tangible that way and something
that’s not abstract because the notion in any things I got it now you don’t see
that in fact and you know what it does to people so if you haven’t how was that impacted in character specifically it has not done
this exercise yet actually toyed with the idea translating some of the science
graphic videos that actually tell the story in a simple way we need to execute
on that visions but there are groups Delhi based groups that are actually
doing it there’s one called three-minute life three mi n dot L IFE they do a
little graphic almost like memes and videos in fact that talk about air
pollution facts in quick nutshells that get transmitted out on social media
every type of social media and they’ve done a fairly good job there are people
in a group called my right to breathe it’s a hash tag hash tag and our TV it’s
a Citizen Action Group and some of those people have their members of Greenpeace
they’re members of the established environmental activist groups but
they’re also citizens they’ve actually turned some of the daily monitoring data
the AQI data for india into graphics so you can actually see how many green
baize we’ve had really good quality areas in the last year and any one
venture guess how many we’ve had how many green good quality air days have we
had in the last year time but less than ten and you guess the zero zero
last month the right after the elections environmental minister he made an
announcement in Parliament that are good quality air days have gone up and are
bad quality air days have gone down the dirty secret behind his this isn’t going
on you to bring you know the dirty secret behind this little factoid that
you share it was he lumped in the good satisfactory and moderate quality air
days so he did not just talk about good he was talking about anything that was
short of unhealthy bad word so when you are in satisfactory moderate you’re
actually saying if you’re at risk again with asthma you’re going to get sick so
you know it’s it’s all about how you spin the Pats and how you actually
present the word that’s out there so there are groups out there that are
actually trying to put all of this gobbledygook up numbers and pollutant
criteria data together and say how do we make this look green yellow orange red
so that people can just see the color code in a simple way and understand what
it means sorry sure the correlations between my yeah – good I am not aware of anyone
who’s going to that level yet and that might be an avenue for communication
strategy that we need to further and work on you know there are no island in
our circles of talking about we can do this and we can do that and share that
information and let’s try to make that impact what I would ask you and a bit of
a challenging thing to say but I would say is okay we can find so many
different ways to present this information but what are we going to do
with it right what is your intent when you create a graphic what is your intent
who are you going to stir this toward and what are you going to want them to
do what they see this information from you you know that’s the one little
challenge I would insert into this discussion is not just let’s make it
look pretty and easy because I can teach you a graph and so I don’t teach them
how to use that graph to further some agenda or policy push or practice then I
haven’t done my job

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