In early May, the World Health Organization released a database ranking outdoor air pollution in cities, with Delhi in first place. Now, I’ve never been to Beijing, but I’ve spent long enough in India’s capital to not be surprised by these findings. My time here has been a year and a half long festival of chest infections and skin trouble, an introduction to stronger medication for what were once only mild allergic reactions, and a constant feeling of bewilderment at the underwhelming reaction of Delhi’s people. The weather forecast on my phone once gave me the temperature, and an icon, accompanied by a one-word description of how the day was expected to be. More often than not, that word alternated between (and I kid you not) “smog” and “dreary”. Needless to say, the weather app was disabled soon after.
Whenever I discuss the issue with someone who, not unlike me, has moved to Delhi from a smaller and less hectic place, the verdict is instant and mutual — a shared sense of frustration at the present circumstances and at the casual response it gets. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for a conversation with someone who hails from here, or has lived in Delhi long enough to call it home. A standard handful of excuses crop up each time, and while one can admire the “looking on the bright side” approach to such a dismal situation, I wonder for how much longer they will live in denial before they take the initiative to do their bit. Here are the most common defensive opinions that Delhi-ites have on these out-of-control air pollution levels, and my counter argument.
1. Delhi is also one of the greenest cities in India, and possibly in the world
First of all, I checked. Statistically, Delhi may be one of India’s greener metros, but it isn’t one of India’s greenest cities, and it’s certainly not in the top green cities in the world. It does, admittedly, abound in parks, gardens, and manicured lawns, and the city does take pride in them and their upkeep. While any kind of vegetation does hold the soil together and draws a bit more rain, I’m not entirely sure if lawns are the way to go. Grass requires a lot of water to survive, and Delhi’s water problems are no secret.
Forest coverage definitely acts as some kind of sink for the CO2 emissions in the region, but the ratio of greenhouses gases to trees is drastically skewed. Additionally, CO2 isn’t the only toxin released into the air, and photosynthesis can’t take care of the rest. Doesn’t it make you wonder how much worse Delhi’s air would be if there were even less greenery? The prospect is frightening.
2. It used to be a lot worse. The Delhi Metro and restriction of LPG usage has made a huge difference to the air quality.
I don’t know how strong an argument I have for this, as I didn’t live here 10 years ago, but the fact of the matter is Delhi’s air pollution is the worst in the world today. We do have to make some allowances for the pollution that arises from the construction of the next phase of the metro lines (in the hope that the final result will aid in reducing emission from vehicular traffic) and other developmental projects, but that’s only a fraction of the total.
3. Delhi is better than Beijing, people just want to give it a bad name.
When I did poorly in a test in school and had to face my mother’s displeasure, I always said, “but they got even less,” to which she always responded with: “I don’t care about other people’s scores, I only care about yours.” Ironically, 15 years down the line, I find myself using this philosophy on such a completely different subject.
For starters, Delhi has veritably defeated Beijing in the race to become the world’s most polluted city. It is also not the only Indian city to feature at the top of the list, and no amount of repudiation from any politician or policy maker will change or fix the reality. Back when China was ahead of us in the worldwide rankings, there was concern among its entire population. In 2013, Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau announced plans to invest 300 billion Yuan to reduce levels of PM2.5, and the state has taken other active measures to deter further damage, including restricting the number of cars sold annually and investing heavily in public transport. As you can see, India has responded somewhat differently to the news.
Secondly, with its global (but honest) image of being an extremely unsafe city — for women, its road rage, and its frequent, rampant outbreaks of dengue and other exotic illnesses — the public’s perception of Delhi in the world, and even among other Indians, is already poor. No one needs to concoct another story or devise another reason to give it one. Regarding this as negative propaganda is another (slightly absurd) form of denial.
4. A lot of the dust problems arise from sandstorms that come from Rajasthan.
While weathering is a very real and undeniable phenomenon of nature, we can’t attribute it all to the degradation of the Aravallis. The range that once acted as a protective barrier from the harsh hot winds that traveled from the Thar Desert bringing dust and sand no longer stands between the two states. Wild construction and other non-forestry activity in the name of progress led to a large portion of the mountains being broken down, giving free entry to the unwanted dust storms. Erosion of the Aravallis has also caused considerable loss of habitat for the wildlife that once survived there, and has increased the region’s susceptibility to floods and droughts.
Apart from each individual attempt to justify or dismiss the alarming reality, what I find most worrisome is that these excuses come from those from a similarly privileged background as mine — one that exposed us to pressing current issues, and that has educated us to not only learn about and understand them, but also take preventive and remedial action. The same people who travel from air-conditioned houses to air-conditioned offices in air-conditioned cars, often even when the metro is a convenient and more practical way to go. By doing just this, we’re adding to the evils in the air and to the brutal heat that we love to hate. Our luxurious lifestyles have made us unaware to the plight faced by those who live in conditions ill-equipped to counter the harsh effects of Delhi’s seasonal weather: the open-air commuters — cyclists, pedestrians, regular patrons of auto and cycle-rickshaws, and the even less fortunate. A certain amount of pollution is inevitable, but the so-called “development” that is happening at the expense of our health is not sufficient justification.
The longer we ignore the problem, the more severe it will get. Our pseudo-concern will rectify nothing, and our “deal with it” or “chalta hai” attitude to life is our greatest failing. Our nation is 1 billion strong. Let’s not wait for the policy makers to decide what to do. Let’s not just talk about it. Let’s actively use the metro that we love to glamourise to the rest of the country, let’s walk the short distances, let’s use the bicycle lanes for what they were built for and not to cut the line at a traffic light in our cars, and let’s not run our ACs at 24 degrees when it’s 26 outside.
During this past election, I was disappointed, to say the least, when no party raised environmental issues on their agenda. It’s time to stop adopting an “out of sight, out of mind” outlook towards life. The words ‘development’, ‘growth’, and ‘progress’ that we hear so often will mean nothing the day our ecosystem can no longer support us and give us the things we’ve taken for granted all these years — fresh air, clean water, and food — and when the effects of climate change damage not just islands, coastal towns, and rural dwellings, but the buzzing metropolises that the world is so proud of.