Waking up to toxic air day after day has its own charm. One no longer needs to watch movies about an apocalypse or the world disintegrating in a distant future. One no longer needs to be scared of nightmares either.
We’re living in exciting times, where children don’t need to pretend that they are doctors or Darth Vader to wear a mask. Now, they have to actually wear masks – in order to live. Our cities are turning into a toxic hotbox. Yet, our “this too shall pass” attitude stays strong.
Earlier, people would depend on rains to grow crops. Now, we depend on rains and winds to help us breathe. God just became so much more relevant in a country already overdosing on religion. Those good ol’ frogs, who time and again are married off to please the rain gods, may have died of asphyxiation too. But the governments in our states/UTs and at the Centre are busy playing the blame-game. Because, mudslinging is a quick fix to all political problems.
Band-aids for multiple stab wounds
Today, Delhi is the model city for ‘how not to fight pollution’. We drive in cars with even and odd number-plates to make a difference to air quality. But what difference can it make when the threshold for such measures to work has long been breached?
Numbers indicate an ‘emergency’ situation as the Air Quality Index or AQI reaches alarming levels due to stubble burning in states like Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. Add to this, the unbridled amount of construction as well as industries releasing toxic fumes all through the year. And, we get the cocktail of pollutants that we are forced to inhale. Band-aids can’t fix multiple stab wounds.
Delhi, in fact, is making us proud by breaking world records. On 15 November, Delhi with an AQI of 527 became the most polluted city in the world, according to weather forecasting agency Skymet. Mumbai and Kolkata were the other Indian cities that made it to the top 10 most polluted cities in the world.
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Yet, neither the Centre, nor the Delhi government has shown any urgency in this regard. Federalism has been thrown out of the window. It’s all about scoring political points and one-upmanship, which is why we saw BJP leader Vijay Goel playing it petty by violating the odd-even scheme – because, according to him, it was nothing but a poll stunt.
The creativity, however, doesn’t end here. There is no dearth of conspiracy theories. According to BJP leader Vineet Sharda, poisonous gases could have been released by Pakistan or China.
Our leaders don’t care
Despite the spike in pollution levels, our lawmakers couldn’t care less.
A parliamentary standing committee had called a high-level meeting Friday to address the rising pollution in Delhi, but 25 of the 29 MPs on the list skipped it. East Delhi MP Gautam Gambhir was busy eating jalebis in Indore when he should have attended this meeting.
Kabhi pohe se teekhe, kabhi jalebi se meethe … wonderful start to the day in Indoor, where we had breakfast outdoor 😛 pic.twitter.com/DxIPtNqYi7
— VVS Laxman (@VVSLaxman281) November 15, 2019
But then those of us who are even a bit concerned about the rising pollution levels in our cities are targeted by those in power. A man in Uttar Pradesh, for instance, was allegedly threatened with NSA for reporting stubble burning in Bareilly.
Also, if as a Muslim you end up talking about not bursting firecrackers on Diwali, you are immediately branded a ‘terrorist’ or an ‘anti-national’ bigot on social media, who should be looking into your own goat-sacrificing festivals before preaching.
It is an ‘airpocalypse’
Amidst all the anxiety caused by this public health emergency, one tries to calm the nerves through yoga or meditation. But in these polluted times, even deep breathing is a bad idea. It somehow feels you’re breathing out air that’s purer than what you breathed in. With every breath one takes, pulmonary diseases say ‘here we come’. Inhaling this toxic air can also cause hardening of arteries, which may lead to a higher chance of heart attacks in patients with cardiovascular ailments.
We see ‘No Smoking’ ads before the start of a movie in theatres. It won’t be too long before we see ‘what difference does it make if you don’t smoke’ ads since breathing in the air with such alarming level of pollutants is equivalent to smoking anywhere between 44-50 cigarettes a day. The lungs are destined to look like the insides of a chimney. Cafes serving coffee are already giving way to cafes offering ‘pure oxygen’. You buy clean air now. Yes, it’s a prized commodity. It is an ‘airpocalypse’.
Many of us haven’t seen the sky or the sun in days. But look at the bright side to this dark smog. The healthcare industry is booming. Air purifiers are selling like hot cakes.
Token measures won’t work
But why are we complaining? We hardly talk about climate change unless forced to stay indoors for a few weeks every winter. Similarly, political parties may have started recognising the issue in their manifestos, but the once-in-a-five-year declaration is clearly not enough to bring a larger change at the policy level.
Although India has taken up a strategic role in global climate action, like it did last year at the World Economic Forum, it’s easy to wax eloquent in a place like Davos where you get fresh air to breathe. Back home, climate change is yet to become a priority.
Be it about cleaning the Ganga or helping farmers with alternatives other than stubble burning to prepare their land before winter sowing, implementation is where every big plan gets stuck.
Take the example of Happy Seeder, a machine that can be used to sow wheat seeds in lands with left-over rice straw, thus doing away with the need for stubble burning. According to researchers, farmers who used the machine saw their average profit go up by 10-20 per cent. The machine also reduces agricultural greenhouse emissions by 78 per cent per hectare. But such technology is expensive and way beyond a farmer’s means. This is where the state needs to play a more proactive role in incentivising its use.
Today, walking through our cities in India is equivalent to walking through a valley of death. We are experiencing doomsday. Maybe, only the aliens can save the day now.
The author is a political observer and writer. Views are personal.
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