Air Quality Ambassadors: How Women Are Fighting Pollution in Delhi’s Slums

Many women from Delhi’s poorer neighborhoods work in construction, a massive and largely unregulated industry where they are frequently exposed to dust, sand, cement and other harmful air pollutants.

That’s why local non-profit Mahila Housing Trust has trained 75 women in three communities to become air quality ‘ambassadors’, who can then teach others how to monitor air pollution. the air, take precautions at work and home, and use the government’s Green Delhi app to tackle pollution. .

Why we wrote this

In India, female construction workers are particularly vulnerable to air pollution. An initiative to equip these workers with tools to monitor and report air quality has offered agency, as well as meaningful change.

Participants say the initiative has strengthened their sense of dignity. Rambharosi, who earns $5 a day fixing tiles and mixing cement, started wearing a mask and gloves to work last year after attending a community meeting. She also talks to contractors at each site and makes sure the gravel and bricks are sprayed with water twice a day, in addition to covering unused materials with tarps.

The programme, which the Mahila Housing Trust hopes to expand to other informal settlements, will not automatically tackle pollution at a systemic level, but “provide the communities most affected with data tools to tell their own stories. “. [and] advocating for their well-being… is certainly an important first step,” says Ulka Kelkar, director of the climate program at the World Resources Institute India.

“Is it a new type of mobile phone? a local woman asked Mumtaz Begam when she showed him a small black box at a women’s meeting in the Delhi slum of Sawda Ghevra. ” A television ? »

But the device wasn’t for entertainment – it was a wearable air quality index monitor, and Ms Begam is one of 75 local women trained to measure AQI levels by a nonprofit organization grassroots nonprofit that works on building climate resilience by making technology accessible to poor urban women.

Many women in Sawda Ghevra work in the construction industry, where they are exposed to dust, sand and cement, which makes them particularly vulnerable to pollution. ‘AQI Ambassadors’ such as Ms Begam teach workers how to measure air pollution in their environment, take precautions at work and home and use the government’s Green Delhi app to reduce pollution. pollution.

Why we wrote this

In India, female construction workers are particularly vulnerable to air pollution. An initiative to equip these workers with tools to monitor and report air quality has offered agency, as well as meaningful change.

Participants say the initiative – by the Mahila Housing Trust (MHT) – has served to strengthen their sense of dignity. Even Ms Begam, who runs a small stationery shop, says that despite hearing about the pollution in the media, she didn’t really believe Delhi’s air was so bad until she read the monitor herself. AQI. Many female construction workers have since made changes that improve their lives.

“Women [in construction] tell me, ‘Now we are much more confident. We tell the contractor that we will only work if the conditions are good,” says Begam.

But there are still limits to what these women can accomplish on their own, experts say.

“Providing the communities most affected with data tools to tell their own story, advocate for their well-being and quantify the risk they face is certainly an important first step,” says Ulka Kelkar, director of the program. from the World Resources Institute India, adding: “Beyond this, there needs to be policy enforcement and capacity building to monitor and ensure compliance.”

Take control in the workplace

The construction industry is the second largest employer in India. It is also largely unregulated, with workers often migrating from rural to urban areas to find employment. Women are particularly vulnerable.

Married at the age of 15 by her family, Rambharosi (who, like many in poor communities, has only one name) migrated with her in-laws to Delhi from the northwestern state of Rajasthan . Every night, his one-room home in the Bakkarwala area is filled with a putrid smell and smoke rising from nearby disputed land where people burn medical, construction and household waste.

Now in her 50s, she earns 400 rupees ($5) a day mixing cement and fixing tiles.

“Women’s wages in the construction sector are significantly lower than those of their male counterparts,” says Arup Mitra, professor of economics at the Delhi Institute of Economic Growth, due to a bias against productivity. women and the low bargaining power of women.

Without safety training or protective gear, women are breathing in debris that medical experts have linked to a variety of illnesses, including tuberculosis and cancer, as well as skin and respiratory conditions.

Rubbish is regularly dumped in an empty lot near the home of Rambharosi and Laxmi in New Delhi, pictured June 8, 2022. The fact that an influential local hospital, pictured left, burns its medical waste here at night makes women hesitant to complain.

“Women suffer doubly in this work…because safety standards are not met,” said Thaneshwar Dayal Adigaur, secretary of a construction workers’ union in Delhi.

In 2021, MHT partnered with social impact agency Purpose to launch a nine-month air pollution awareness and advocacy project for female construction workers in three areas of Delhi – Sawda Ghevra, Bakkarwala and Gokulpuri.

Rambharosi, who started wearing a mask, scarf and gloves to work for the first time last year after attending a community meeting, borrowed the AQI monitor to show other women how the air was polluted in their workplace.

“The round thing was red because the pollution was high at that time,” she says. “I told them it was an alarm bell showing the danger of smoke and dust.”

She now talks to contractors at each site and makes sure the sand, gravel and bricks are sprayed with water twice a day, in addition to covering unused materials with tarps. She makes it a point to tell other women to dress their children in long-sleeved clothes and to make sure they don’t play in the sand.

Report risks

In addition to training AQI ambassadors, MHT and its community action groups also rode an electric rickshaw with posters, distributed materials, performed street plays, painted murals and met with legislators to push for safer workplaces. They managed to reach 100,000 construction workers. The group’s final survey found that 82% have started wearing masks at work and 13% have taken action to prevent pollution in their workplaces.

During the project, the Delhi government took notice of their efforts and decided to work with MHT to promote its relatively new pollution control app.

Launched in 2020, the Green Delhi app allows citizens to report various environmental infractions in the city, including the burning of waste and the accumulation of dust on the roads. GDi Partners, a social impact consultancy, has been working with the government since 2021 to make the app more effective and has trained AQI Ambassadors on how to use the app to report violations.

Rambharosi’s daughter, Laxmi, received training and has since helped 300 women download the app. She herself filed 14 complaints, most of which have been resolved.

In July, the app had 75,677 downloads and registered 51,554 complaints. GDi claims that 95% of them have been resolved.

One complaint that has not been addressed is the burning of medical waste outside Rambharosi and Laxmi’s residence. Laxmi filed the lawsuit on the app, but the women are nervous to push the issue because a powerful hospital is involved.

It’s a fear shared by many users, whose names and locations are logged by the app, leading to data security issues. Some worry about retaliation or harassment.

“It hasn’t happened yet, but we are afraid it will happen,” says Rambharosi.

Other women who have used the Green Delhi app say they have been turned away by city workers. “I have helped many people file complaints for non-collection of waste,” says Saroj, another AQI ambassador from Bakkarwala. “The municipal worker came up to me and said, ‘Don’t complain about us anymore.'”

Despite these hurdles, the Green Delhi app aims for 5 million people to use the app within the next three years. MHT also plans to expand its program to other informal settlements.

As for Rambharosi, she says even small measures like covering up at work have made a difference. Once plagued with frequent rashes and ulcers, Rambharosi no longer needs medication for his skin. “My hands stay clean, the cement doesn’t rub on my skin, and I feel better,” she says.

She remembers the earthy smell of the village she grew up in and hopes to return there one day when she retires. “I always want clean air,” she says.

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