Friday, November 11, 2016

Not another pollution column

Yes, another pollution column

(Published on November 5, 2016 in Business Standard)

A friend hoped I wasn’t going to write on pollution this week, because he’s seen about 793 pieces on the subject in the last four days. Well, here’s no. 794.

Delhi’s pollution problem is encased in what author Douglas Adams called a Somebody Else’s Problem (SEP) field—a device that can run for 100 years on a single torchlight battery because it is powered by people’s total refusal to see what they don’t expect or want to see. Ours is a huge and life-threatening problem, but it requires so much patient, consistent, incremental, consensus-building work to fix, that it is too crazy boring to think about. So we haven’t. 

It’s been like that for years. At the turn of the century the Supreme Court prodded the Delhi government into making one huge leap to CNG, dissipating the ominous black cloud that hung over the capital; but over the years, that progress has been rapidly overwhelmed by more people, more vehicles, more construction, more dust, and crop burning in surrounding states. Today, despite CNG and a popular and growing metro system, the air problem is just getting bigger, worsening every winter. Yet we just go about our lives buying more diesel cars, shopping harder, building more things without tamping down dust, and burning leaves and wood, as if it simply isn’t true that we’re at risk of debilitating disease, or death, just by virtue of breathing. And it’s not like you can opt out of breathing.

Nobody wanted to think about it. It’s as simple as that.

But nothing focuses the public’s attention like wretched health. Everyone’s SEP field is failing. Today, every Facebook and Twitter timeline is filled with screenshots of air quality monitoring device readings, maxed out on the post-Diwali airborne sludge that we have no choice but to breathe. People are exchanging information on where to get face masks, how this air purifier compares with that one, and how long they’ve been coughing and sneezing. People are gasping their way to the doctor only to be told, purifiers-schmurifiers—the only way back to health is to leave Delhi and live somewhere else.

Just pause here for a minute. The air is so toxic that doctors advise people with vulnerable health conditions to simply leave Delhi. There’s no way to say this gently: you have to be a complete moron to believe that development at this price is any development at all. It’s a source of enduring amazement to me that when Delhiites speak of quality of life, mobile phones and cars come up; domestic help and groceries delivered to the door come up; but almost nobody will mention clean air and clean water. What will come up is the ability to holiday in a place with clean air and water.

People without kids can rant and rave, wear face masks and agitate for clean air; or go barefaced into the yellow miasma without caring when or where we drop dead. But for those of us who reproduced, and are responsible for someone little and vulnerable, and for all of us who have ageing parents, we really don’t have an option.

Would you be okay with locking your kids into a smoke-filled room? Would you agree to force them to smoke several packets of cigarettes a day? Would you be okay with putting a hand over their mouths so that they have to struggle for breath? Because that’s what you’re effectively doing by putting up an SEP field around Delhi air. If your answer to those questions is no, you have a duty to stand up and demand that everyone—government and citizens—work together to find a solution.

This is a long-standing public health emergency in the capital of India. That is, at best, embarrassing—but we no longer have the luxury of focusing on the best. When the AAP came to power, I had hoped that it would make cleaning up Delhi air its top priority. This season, as PM 2.5 levels in Delhi rocket off the charts, the health minister tweeted something to the effect that he would set up a committee to form other committees to look into it—I’d suspect him of gallows humour if governments had a sense of humour. The AAP’s failure to take serious anti-pollution steps ranks as its biggest, most damning failure.

Delhi can recognise and demand a minimum quality of life; or we can decide that we don’t mind living in an unliveable cesspit as long as we have shiny new malls and great cars and money—that, like cockroaches, we can thrive in filthy conditions.

But if we don’t get real now, we won’t have a choice. We’re completely out of time.  

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