Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 29 April 2012
As I lie awake in the wee hours of the morning struggling to breathe, I remember Saneeya Hussain.
And when I see yet another road accident on our increasingly mean streets, I think of Sachitra Silva.
It is now seven years since both these lives were snuffed out, on opposite sides of the planet, within a couple of weeks. The shock and grief have subsided; the memories linger.
I knew and worked with both these committed journalists. I connect their premature deaths to the inter-related urban scourges of our own making that are now running amok: crazy traffic and fouled air.
Saneeya was an ebullient, passionate journalist who blazed new trails in empathetic media coverage of social, political and development issues – initially in her native Pakistan, and then at South Asian regional level.
Our paths first crossed when we both worked for IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature. We shared a common interest in using the media to search for a middle ground between excessive environmentalism and unbridled economic development. The trail she blazed was an inspiration to many of us.
In 2002, Saneeya became the Executive Director of Panos South Asia, a media development organisation anchored in Kathmandu and working across the SAARC region. As a Board member, I worked closely with her in several projects supporting good journalism on key survival issues like poverty, conflict, health and the environment.
I soon discovered that she and I shared a common problem: asthma. Hers was worse than mine.
In the end, Saneeya was forced to leave Nepal – and Panos – as she just couldn’t cope with Kathmandu valley’s polluted air. She relocated to Sao Paulo with her Brazilian husband, Luis.
Despite moving half the world away, she couldn’t find clean enough air. On 7 April 2005, she suffered an acute asthma attack. It was the evening rush hour in Sao Paulo, a mega city that packs almost the entire population of Sri Lanka. Luis drove as fast as the traffic would let him, yet it took him 20 minutes to reach the nearest hospital 2 km away.
Saneeya — who had walked to the car – stopped breathing five minutes into that drive. By the time medical help reached her, it was too late: her brain had suffered too much damage lacking oxygen. She never recovered from the coma, and died on 20 April 2005. She was 50.
As Luis remarked later, it was not asthma but the traffic that killed Saneeya.
We had barely recovered from that shock when Sachitra Silva was killed in a road accident in suburban Colombo. He was only 28.
At the time, he was a TV journalist working for a business TV show produced by the Vanguard media group (ETV Channel). He was also a Panos media fellow, researching the impact of the Lankan conflict on small businesses. I was his fellowship mentor.
One morning in early May 2005, Sachitra was riding his motor cycle to a meeting of Panos media fellows when a petrol bowser (tanker) ran over him. He had been travelling regularly to conflict areas in the East for his journalistic work, knowing the risks it entailed. Who expected him to die within a kilometre of his Colombo office?
As I wrote at the time: “Shocked as we are by this latest tragedy, we still don’t realise how mean our streets have become. Someone is killed in a road accident on average once every six hours in Sri Lanka. Every few weeks or months, there is a major accident that results in multiple deaths that triggers public outrage. Editorialists and columnists demand better law enforcement. Cocktail intellectuals talk ceaselessly on whether a ‘poor country’ can afford such an influx of vehicles. But this uproar dies down as quickly as it rises. In a few days, it is all but forgotten — except by those who suffered injury, or lost a loved one.”
Seven years on, both air pollution and road accident trends have only worsened across much of South Asia.High profile deaths attract more attention – such as when Tareque Masud, an internationally acclaimed Bangladeshi film director, died last August when his microbus collided head-on with a passenger bus in Ghior, close to Dhaka. Many thousands more perish without attracting much or any media coverage.
I can only repeat, with added emphasis, a question I first posed in May 2005: “How many more people like Sachitra and Saneeya have to go on making up our statistics before we realise what urban nightmares we have created for ourselves in South Asia?”
The buck stops with us. Our individual apathy — and our collective inaction — have slowly but surely become a hideous monster that has returned to haunt us. The genie, out of the lamp, no longer does our bidding.
There is mounting evidence on the far-reaching health impacts of air pollution, much of it stemming from vehicle exhaust emissions. In particular, microscopic particulate matter is causing or aggravating many respiratory ailments — including asthma.
“Forty five per cent of the total outpatient cases in our leading public hospitals is due to respiratory problems. The public healthcare costs resulting from polluted air is already enormous – and keeps growing,” says Professor Oliver Ileperuma of the University of Peradeniya.
Professor Ileperuma, who has been studying air quality in Sri Lanka for many years, confirms that air pollution levels in Colombo, Kandy and other urban areas in Sri Lanka are indeed rising.
We might debate about the finer points – such as which type of vehicles or fuels pollute the most — but the overall patterns are clear. We are engaged in what the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in India once termed ‘slow murder’ of each other.
The grim realities of urban sprawl and run-away development connect Saneeya’s death with Sachitra’s in more ways than one. In doing so, they remind us of our culpability, and our rising vulnerability.
See CSE’s briefing paper on air pollution and public health in South Asian cities at: http://tiny.cc/CMBMob
Saneeya Hussain Trust website: www.saneeyahussaintrust.com