Delhi, a city in denial

Last Updated: Thu, Nov 07, 2019 11:57 hrs
Delhi pollution

All the years that I lived in Delhi, I didn’t quite understand what outsiders were complaining about when they called out the pollution. All big cities are polluted, and Delhi’s smog didn’t seem any worse than Bangalore or Calcutta on a bad day.

The insidiousness of Delhi’s toxic air is such that one’s lungs can actually get used to it.

When I moved back to Madras, I put down my burst of energy and my blessed health to being home.

It was only during a four-day visit to Delhi some months later that I realised that was not the only, or even the main, reason. My eyes were streaming in the traffic, and I found myself coughing from the exhaust emissions of vehicles and air that smelled of cigarette smoke.

This was back in 2012, when the pollution in Delhi was several times less than it is now.

A couple of years later, a Canada-based friend told me a colleague was moving to India for several months to work with an NGO. He stayed a week in Delhi, and spent most of it in a hospital. He had been unable to breathe, and had to return as soon as he could be discharged.

When I went to Delhi in the November of 2017, I spent most of the first night in the city sick in the bathroom. I understood that one’s stomach could actually heave, that one can be sick on an empty stomach, and that bile is arguably the worst-tasting fluid one could throw up.

I felt for the three Sri Lankan cricketers who had been sick during the test match at the Feroz Shah Kotla: bowlers Lahiru Gamage and Suranga Lakmal, who had complained of respiratory distress, and batsman Dhananjaya de Silva.

Almost exactly two years later, Delhi registered its worst air quality of the season and perhaps worst in years, with some parts of the city showing an Air Quality Index (AQI) of 999. This, of course, does not mean the AQI was precisely 999. The meters are not built to show four digits, since the World Health Organisation deems that the safety limit for AQI is 25. The average in the city was over 700. The concentration of particulate matter was ten times above the higher limit.

People were advised to avoid outdoor activities, schools were shut for three days, and a public health emergency was declared.

Yet, friends who posted pictures of dirty skies and barely visible skyscrapers from their windows left for work right after.

Yet, on Sunday, an international sporting event was held, and a huge crowd turned up at the Arun Jaitley stadium to watch the Indian and Bangladeshi cricket teams take each other on in a T20 International.

Hours after two cricketers, including Bangladesh’s batting star Soumya Sarkar, vomited on the field, the teams were showered with high praise for braving the conditions.

It is shocking that the municipal authorities and sports bodies allowed the match to be held during a public health emergency, and put not just the cricketers, but the spectators at risk.

It is not brave to be on the field at such a time, it is foolhardy.

One wonders whether any team that was not from the subcontinent would have consented to participate in the match.

Is it in our genes to claim ourselves brave after taking a needless health risk?

Because it is not simply the cricketers who did this. Spectators proudly posted photographs of themselves, to prove that their love for live cricket had shoved them from their sitting rooms – where they would likely have had a better view of the proceedings – and into the smog-filled stadium.

When everyone who works out of an office has an internet connection at home, why haven’t companies asked their employees to work from home?

Delhi has for long been in denial of just how severe its pollution crisis is.

When I first moved to Delhi, nothing surprised me more than the habitants’ love for winters. The city had the ugliest winter I had ever seen. There was no snow, naturally. The cold was unbearable, and there was no central heating anywhere except in the poshest malls.

The pollution seems to get even worse during the winters, thanks to the propensity of the locals to celebrate festivals and weddings with fireworks. Because winter is synonymous with cigarettes, the air is heavy with tobacco smoke. The rain, which in most cities leaves the air clearer, usually worsens the situation by causing the humidity to increase.

The newspapers would speak of hundreds of deaths during the cold wave, and yet people who had bought overpriced winter clothes would sigh about how wonderful the weather was.

Some days ago, I came across a Twitter thread on which people were arguing about the insensitivity of users in less polluted cities who had posted photographs of their unfogged surroundings. Some compared the smog to floods, and said Delhiites hadn’t posted photographs of dry streets when Bombay was flooded, and they would like the same sensitivity.

This is one of the biggest problems with denial. We make heroes and martyrs of ourselves, absolving ourselves of all responsibility.

Just as everyone praised the “spirit of Madras” when the tsunami and floods wrecked the city, just as everyone showers annual praise on the “spirit of Bombay” during the rains, Delhi’s residents believe they must be praised for overcoming a natural disaster.

The smog in the city is entirely due to manmade causes – such as stubble burning and bursting fireworks.

And everyone falling sick in the city owes his condition to denial. But it’s nicer to call it “heroism”.

More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:

Nobel for economist, tailspin for economy 

Why the Diaspora has so much love to give

Hindi debate: We are all obsessed with homogeneity

We are choking the earth

When Kamal Haasan endorsed harassment

The Dalai Lama and the death of humour

The delusionary Indian intellectual

India's culture of worship has to end




Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com