Delhi choking on a political crisis?
Earlier this month, my family doctor sent me a curt message: “Air has become hazardous. Do not go for a walk in the park. Work from home.” I checked out the air quality index of Delhi and it was at 900 with very high particulate matter or PM. The air was murderous and there was no one, climate change deniers included, who was rubbishing these figures. Delhi and the entire swath of Indo-Gangetic plain was breathing death and there were no short term measures to fight it out, except to stay indoors, close to uncertain air purifiers and cover your face.
Delhi always had smog during winter months, but this time it was unusual. Not only did it come earlier, but also the pollution was quite intense. This was not just confined to the capital city, but as satellite pictures confirmed Lahore in Pakistan, too, was shrouded in a smoky haze like any other north Indian city. Besides, Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency, Varanasi, was rated as the most polluted. Later, there was a twitter storm claiming that the pollution observation stations in this ancient town were shut down as their higher rank on the pollution scale was embarrassing the PM.
As reports began trickling in from the health department about increased flow of people with asthma and other breathing disorders to hospitals, there was a demand that the government urgently do something about it. Routinely, the example of China and how it controlled toxic air before the Olympic Games in 2008 were fiercely suggested on TV and the print media. The local government in Delhi or the national government was hoping that nature would find a solution while they gave lip service to the steps they could take. In Delhi and in the neighbouring areas, for a week, the air just hung there — there was neither breeze nor rain. When there was no substantial change in PM, the Delhi government decided to shut down schools for a few days. Car rationing based on odd and even registration numbers was sought to be revived, but it ran into an overly aggressive National Green Tribunal (NGT). The Tribunal wanted to know whether there was any linkage between pollution and car rationing. The result of this incessant questioning was that the rationing was put on hold.
Expectedly, diplomats were the most vociferous in criticising the growing pollution. The Dean of foreign missions went to the MEA and conveyed to them the horrors of living in Delhi. A US diplomat told me: “We have not had a chance to step out of our embassy in the past 10 days. We sit next to our air purifiers and check the air quality index.” Costa Rican ambassador to Delhi, Mariela Cruz Alvarez, was not poetic in describing her woe when she was breathing Delhi’s toxic air: “I am a living proof that our planet is dying today, coughing as I write this with Indian bronchitis.” She further claimed that India was guiding the world into darkness. Eventually, she decided to fly to the southern city of Bengaluru. There are other diplomatic missions in Delhi that have taken steps to control air pollution in their premises. Norwegians, who have moved into a new embassy, have high quality filters that maintain the air quality at a certain level. The US too has closed down the envelopes and control the air through similar air purifiers.
After a fortnight of haze and distress, the air quality mercifully plummeted from hazardous to “very bad,” which is fine for us living in the Indo-Gangetic plains where things usually worsen in winter months. In many ways, what we saw in the first week of November is a trailer of what will happen again when we go deeper into winter. The government would again run to NGT, which will ask another set of difficult questions. When they are playing out this charade, they would be hoping for winter rains or some strong winds. The collateral damage of this cluelessness and ridiculous desire to find out how China controlled their pollution would result in thousands of deaths all over this region. As always, they will take refuge behind criminal explanations — people always die in this season.