#LetMeBreathe: A social response to pollution in India

Caption: Tamseel Hussain, leader of the Let Me Breathe (LMB) social media platform (third right), with his team capturing stories to highlight air pollution challenges.

“Most people in India have mobile phones,” says Tamseel Hussain, leader of the Let Me Breathe (LMB) social media platform. “We are a bunch of journalists and social media experts, and we turned our interests to air pollution because we could see it was becoming a major trend on social media,” he explained.

The platform started out as a hashtag used by Delhiites making their own vlogs to document high air pollution. “One October, when Delhi was enveloped by a particularly bad smog, we noticed that a lot of people were worried,” he explains. “But no one knew what to do, and there was no central place where people could tell their story.

“These stories were fragmented, so we created the hashtag and social media handles #LetMeBreathe. Since then, it has gathered momentum as is becoming a social movement. We realized when we covered pollution stories that everyone can be a mobile journalist. Now we focus on enabling people to tell stories on their own by training them on WhatsApp, with a platform to showcase them.”

The initiative comes as UN Environment launches its BreatheLife Challenge, encouraging people to contribute towards air pollution reduction by walking, biking or taking public transport for 26 miles during the month of May.

The social movement has already had real social impact. Bharati Chaturvedi is an environmentalist, founder and director of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group. The organization works with the urban poor, to recycle and create awareness about the need for reduced consumption and better waste management among the middle and upper classes.

Chaturvedi contacted Hussain and his team to document a story about waste pickers at a landfill site. “We were concerned about air pollution around the site,” she remembers. “Richer people were buying masks for themselves and their children for the same price that a waste picker would make in a whole day to feed their families,” said Chaturvedi. 

“We ran the story through a crowdfunding group to raise money for the masks, and then we held an event, inviting elected government representatives for the area so that waste pickers could talk to them and directly rest their point.”

Chintan raised enough money to distribute 263 face masks to families in the area, and continues to follow up with local representatives to take more permanent action in the waste sites. For example, setting up clinics nearby and access to water. 

The #LetMeBreathe platform also showcased Naman Chopra’s story. He quit Tesla to found his own enterprise in India manufacturing electric bikes: Rexnamo. From US$375 motorbikes to luxury sedans at US$18,000 – some of the electric and automatic vehicles can reach 60 kilometers an hour in six seconds. Chopra’s story has been seen by more than two million people.

“This showed me that there is a lot more scope to develop our electric technology in India,” said Chopra, who believes transport can be made cleaner and more environmentally friendly. “Many more people want to take more advantage of this technology – it’s just not as widely available as we would like yet.”   

Let Me Breathe has public engagement at its core, and aims to combine the ethics of mobile journalism with the reach of social media. Stories about ordinary folk have reached an estimated 7 million people since the platform launched on October 2017, engaging 20,000 people monthly on Facebook.

Influencers range from entrepreneurs in Delhi, Resident Welfare Association leaders, non-profits, policy makers to people surviving pollution every day. Some stories have been picked up by national broadcast network such as NDTV, and citizen initiatives such as YouthKiAwaaz.

“We have funding from some philanthropists, and we are now working on this full time,” he said, adding that the platform is run by the organization he founded with some colleagues, People Like Us Create, or Pluc.in.

Let Me Breathe now plans to hold workshops across India to train people in using smartphones to document air pollution. “It’s really about people doing amazing things to make this world a better place, and documenting it, to reach out to others,” said Hussain.

 “We want to inspire people to use their mobile phones and tell pollution stories that may not be getting enough coverage on traditional media, but are crucial for people to make better informed decisions,” he said.

Find LetMeBreathe on Facebook here.  And https://twitter.com/LetMeBreathe

The Young Champions of the Earth prize, powered by Covestro, highlights stories of young people making a difference for the environment. Have a story to share? Contact: Georgina.smith (at) un.org