Communicating Air Pollution Problem through Cartoons

Air Pollution is one the most challenging problem the Indian sub-continent is facing, the role of communicating science of air pollution through cartoons about various sources like biomass burning, industrial and power generation combustion, vehicular emissions etc. can be crucial in increasing both public awareness and appeal for legitimate action by the policymakers

The problem of air pollution in India has taken an ugly turn in last two decades with rapid increase in several streams of anthropogenic activities (Bernard and Kazmin, 2018) and natural sources like dust storms (DTE, 2021) resulting in poor air quality in region. Around two third of the world’s top-20 (IQAir, 2022) worst air polluted cities are in India. And the situation in the other industrial town and tier -2 and 3 cities is also not very encouraging. According to the latest study published by (Pandey et al., 2021) published in (2021-22), air pollution related factors had 2.3 million morbidity figures for India (BBC, 2022).

The states of Punjab, Haryana and Western Parts of Uttar Pradesh are the epicentres of Paddy-Wheat cultivation and Production cycle in India. Due to migration and rising labor cost, fuel & capital costs, poor incentives and training for farmers the problems of stubble burning has intensified. This becomes more problematic during temperature inversion and higher-pressure during the winters coupled with festive events like Diwali Festival (BBC, 2021), seasonal crop residue burning practices, changing weather patterns (PTI, 2021) etc.

The air pollution does not respect the local or regional boundaries, and hence, it creates transboundary blanket of haze in the South Asian Region. The chemical species spurred during the stubble burning gets associated with the weather phenomena, which further adds woes to the bad air quality of the region with the formation of secondary aerosols. Hence, this in the long-run is going to affect the climatic cycles (through glaciers and drainage (O’Hara, 2021)), flora-fauna (Gurjar, 2021), cropping yields (Ghorayshi, 2014) and human health (Kaur and Pandey, 2021).

The Indian government has been attentive to these issues and has taken many ambitious steps (National Clear Air Programme (Ganguly, Selvaraj, and Guttikunda, 2020)), Eight strategic Missions under climate change (DST, 2022)  and Commitments toward CO2 reduction, Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) (UNFCCC, 2022) etc.) to curtail challenges of air pollution and connected peripheral issues. However, air pollution is dynamically affected by both intrinsic and extraneous issues like rebound-effect, regional pollution sources, fugitive emissions, natural causes (dust storms) and new/emerging forms of pollution vis-à-vis socio-economic metamorphosis.

The fight against air pollution requires all the stakeholders putting concerted efforts to address such a complex problem. In this context the role of communicating science of the air pollution and certain viable solutions becomes inevitable. There are several public institutions (like Vigyan Prasar, All India Radio, Doordarshan etc.), media houses, state governments which periodically publish with their information capsules in print and electronic forms for educating the masses about the problems and solutions of air pollution. However, these communication channels are often criticised of not being very critical of Government’s view point and taking a safe line of expression. This calls for a more critical way of looking the challenges of air pollution.

Cartoon artists are known to speak the crude truth in our societies with a reflected sense of humour and sarcasm. Every morning many national and state dailies along with independent artists publish several cartoons which inform and educate masses about different aspects hampering the society. Since, air pollution is one the most challenging public health issue the Indian sub-continent is facing, the role of communicating science of air pollution through creative art forms like cartoons can be crucial in increasing both public awareness and legitimate appeal to the policymakers. At the Project Aakash’s WG-1 we’re currently working on understanding the socio-economic, cultural and anthropological issues pertaining to air pollution in India. How the ‘Public Understanding of Science’ about air pollution is been improved in India (through public institutions programmes like training programmes, television, radio, civil society members, and creative art forms like cartoons and stand-up comedy) is a component of study.

For this purpose, we’re closely studying the content, form, timing and appeal of the series of cartoons published related to air pollution, especially published in the past five years during the months of October and November. For instance, the paddy stubble burning is an ephemeral issue which severely deteriorates the impact of air pollution during winters in Northern parts of India. But this is been drawn, understood and reflected by various cartoonists in different manner i.e., who is responsible for this severe form of pollution? The cartoonist questions the scientific temper of the lawmakers, farmers and the urban folks simultaneously. It is left to the reader to decipher and understand the message.

While a few of the cartoonist just add a peg of sarcasm on politicians when elections are priotized over public health emergency related to air pollution. There are issues of social perception when eco-friendly tools like riding a bicycle is seen as backward by fellow citizens. It is important to know that cartoonist also come from the same fabric of the society and sometimes they understand the contemporary issues in politico-economic contexts with their own biases. In one of the cartoons, a farmer in Punjab is been depicted saying that air pollution from the stubble burning will not stay in his region and will pass-on to Delhi.

It is also important to mention that the case of cartoons and communicating air pollution due to stubble burning rhymes with the season and get cluttered with international, national and local issues perennially emanating from various fronts. Hence, the cartoonists also follow the weather, this sometimes shifts the interests away the issues of stubble burning. However, it is not very clear that how a cartoonist or the media house engages its readers about the other issues related to agriculture stubble management (training of farmers, subsidies, Union-Province cooperation, technological solutions etc.) across the year (if compared with the range of topics like energy, environment, agriculture, economy, social issues etc.)?

This opens up a major question that- how creatively can an idea or a problem of public health be communicated with the audience through cartoons? Thereafter, how do the public understand and relates to such approaches? Are there certain successful strategies of communicating science through comics which the Governments, International Organisations, Civil Society Organisations and Multinational Organisations can follow-up in different or similar geographies in near future to address similar issues like air pollution?

Our research will fathom deeper into such questions and collect data related to cartoons and public comments on them at the newspaper’s reader’s comments section and on social media sites (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram). Python programming script will be deployed to parse the data automatically through the mentioned sources. We’re also going to conduct personal interview of the major cartoonist (depending on their readership/followers reach, popularity of the content and readership of media house/publisher) and decipher how do they develop the content and how is their artform seen making an impact in science communication about air pollution and stubble burning issues in India?

Acknowledgement: This blog post is an update of the ongoing research conducted under the Aakash Project at RIHN, Kyoto under the leadership of Prof. Sachiko Hayashida. The author is highly indebted to the constant guidance and support by Prof. Hayashida and Prof. Kaoru Sugihara at all stages of this research. 


BBC. 2021. ‘Air Quality Index: Delhi Air Turns Toxic after Diwali Fireworks’. BBC News, 5 November 2021, Online edition, sec. India. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-59172888

BBC. 2022. ‘Lancet Study: Pollution Killed 2.3 Million Indians in 2019’. News. BBC News. 18 May 2022. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-61489488

Bernard, Steven, and Amy Kazmin. 2018. ‘Dirty Air: How India Became the Most Polluted Country on Earth’. Financial Times, 11 December 2018. https://ig.ft.com/india-pollution

DST. 2022. ‘Climate Change Programme’. Department of Science and Technology (DST). 2022. https://dst.gov.in/climate-change-programme

DTE. 2021. ‘Sand and Dust Storms Impact over 500 Million in India: Study’. Down To Earth (DTE). 31 August 2021. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/pollution/sand-and-dust-storms-impact-over-500-million-in-india-study-78736

Ganguly, Tanushree, Kurinji L. Selvaraj, and Sarath K. Guttikunda. 2020. ‘National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) for Indian Cities: Review and Outlook of Clean Air Action Plans’. Atmospheric Environment: X 8 (December): 100096. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aeaoa.2020.100096

Ghorayshi, Azeen. 2014. ‘India Air Pollution “Cutting Crop Yields by Almost Half”’. The Guardian, 3 November 2014, sec. Environment. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/nov/03/india-air-pollution-cutting-crop-yields-by-almost-half

Gurjar, Bhola Ram. 2021. ‘Air Pollution in India: Major Issues and Challenges’. TERI Blog (blog). 5 April 2021. https://www.teriin.org/article/air-pollution-india-major-issues-and-challenges

IQAir. 2022. ‘World’s Most Polluted Cities in 2021 – PM2.5 Ranking | IQAir’. 2022. https://www.iqair.com/world-most-polluted-cities

Kaur, Rajveer, and Puneeta Pandey. 2021. ‘Air Pollution, Climate Change, and Human Health in Indian Cities: A Brief Review’. Frontiers in Sustainable Cities 3 (August): 705131. https://doi.org/10.3389/frsc.2021.705131

O’Hara, Emily. 2021. ‘Study Locates Origins of Glacier Soot Pollution in Northern India’. State of the Planet (blog). 3 February 2021. https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2021/02/03/study-locates-origins-glacier-soot/

Pandey, Anamika, Michael Brauer, Maureen L Cropper, Kalpana Balakrishnan, Prashant Mathur, Sagnik Dey, Burak Turkgulu, et al. 2021. ‘Health and Economic Impact of Air Pollution in the States of India: The Global Burden of Disease Study 2019’. The Lancet Planetary Health 5 (1): e25–38. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(20)30298-9

PTI. 2021. ‘Delhi Air Pollution: AQI “Severe” Again, Unfavourable Weather Conditions Major Factor’. The Wire. 26 November 2021. https://thewire.in/environment/delhi-air-pollution-aqi-severe-again-unfavourable-weather-conditions-major-factor

UNFCCC. 2022. ‘India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution: Working Towards Climate Justice’. 2022. https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/NDC/2022-06/INDIA%20INDC%20TO%20UNFCCC.pdf

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Deepak SINGH
総合地球環境学研究所 研究員 研究分野:技術予測・科学技術イノベーション政策・エネルギー・環境・公共政策