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On a mission to clear the smog

Instead of moving cities or waiting for authorities to act, millennials are working towards finding solutions to air pollution and building new careers for themselves in the process

Delhi’s Pavneet Singh Puri has built India’s first smog tower.
Delhi’s Pavneet Singh Puri has built India’s first smog tower.

Over the past few months, air quality in several parts of the country has been extremely poor. Experts have cited several reasons for the toxic air—from crop burning and vehicular emission to firecrackers. This, of course, is not the first time people are experiencing unhealthy air. Each year, from October the air quality drops, and people struggle to breathe, forcing them to invest in air purifiers, masks and plants. Those fortunate enough to be able to leave the city, move temporarily to the hills.

Some millennials, however, are taking matters into their own hands. They are trying to find solutions to pollution, and forging new careers for themselves because they believe real change will happen only if people make an effort.


Delhi’s Tamseel Hussain, 31, started a storytelling platform, Let Me Breathe, in 2017. “Two years ago, a few of us from Delhi were sharing our experiences of pollution on social media. We noticed how these stories were creating change. That’s how Let Me Breathe came into being," says Hussain.

On his platform, Hussain narrates stories related to pollution from ideas to solutions, and posts videos explaining various kinds of environmental hazards. It also serves as a platform to bridge the gap between solution providers, innovators and decision makers. For instance, Let Me Breathe recently hosted a call by a man who complained about the amount of plastic a particular fast-food chain uses. The story was shared, discussed and the brand eventually reached out to say it has decided to minimize plastic use in all Indian outlets.

“It is great to see these changes. I have been moving towards a sustainable lifestyle for the past 10 years. The market is slowly opening up now. With time, sustainability is going to get bigger," believes Hussain. He’s planning to launch an e-commerce platform that will offer products aimed at tackling pollution like masks and air-purifiers.

Like Hussain, Bengaluru’s Shiwani Anurag Shrivastava, 28, too developed an interest in environmental issues in school. She pursued environmental engineering and sustainability development from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. Three years ago, she joined Environ India, a consultancy service provider in areas of environmental testing, air pollution control and waste water management.

“Most companies have the profile of an environmental impact specialist because they need to understand how to manage their waste, especially waste water and biomedical waste. For such a role, you need to prepare well, understand waste water treatment technology and design, how to handle and monitor equipments in laboratories and in the field," she explains.

But perhaps the biggest challenge of working in the environmental field is to change mindsets, she says. “Companies will help you with what you need. But sometimes the government officials can have a very casual attitude towards pollution. People might have the best interests in mind, but often would continue to pollute or not take action because everyone else is doing it too," she adds.

Afforestt’s Shubhendu Sharma uses the Miyawaki method to create forests in cities.
Afforestt’s Shubhendu Sharma uses the Miyawaki method to create forests in cities.


Mindset change and building awareness comes with the job description for anyone who wants to be an eco-warrior.

An industrial engineer by education, Bengaluru-based Shubhendu Sharma was working with Toyota when he came across the work of Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki online. Sharma learnt the Miyawaki method of building mini-forests in limited plots of land and after creating a similar forest in his own backyard, decided to do it for a living. He quit his job, and set up Afforestt with a partner in 2011.

“The trigger was not just air pollution, but also lack of biodiversity and green cover in cities," says Sharma, 34.

Sharma’s journey from an engineer to a forester hasn’t been easy, though.

“When we started, we faced challenges that all startups face—parents were not convinced about me quitting, we didn’t get clients for months or they wouldn’t pay much. To be fair, a few of the challenges remain the same—only they are in new geographies now," says Sharma. Afforestt is now present in Lebanon, Nicaragua, Iran and the Netherlands. The forests range from 1,000 sq. ft to 400 acres.

“While the government has helped, we wish there were tax concessions for startups that are trying to work on environmental issues. That would help grow interest in more solutions," Sharma says.

Delhi’s Pavneet Singh Puri, meanwhile, is looking for buyers for his smog tower, which happens to be India’s first. The 40 ft-tall purifier has the capacity to clean 32 million cubic metres of air per day, by using several fans to keep the flow of clean air going.

Puri, co-founder of Kurin Systems, which has got a patent for the tower, returned to Delhi in 2013 after completing his masters from University of Melbourne,and realized the pollution problem had increased manifold. His four-year-old nephew could not breathe easily while in Delhi.

“That was the turning point. It’s easy to just buy an air purifier, but that is not the solution. People cannot access or afford clean air in our country," says the 31-year old.

Despite the high levels of toxins in the air, people understand very little about pollution, says Puri. “People think that by just planting trees, or watering the roads, problem will be solved. They alone won’t help; we need technology, and we all need to work together."

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