Eighty. That’s how many people pollution kills in the national capital — not in a year, a month, or a week, but every day. This is the number that >Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar gave to Parliament in July in a written reply, based on the constructive estimates and extrapolation of data by an international study. By this count, in a few more days, as many as 29,200 people would have died this year, gasping for breath. These could be your neighbours, people you know, or even people related to you. A third of the pollution is estimated to be vehicular. The Delhi High Court has observed that living in Delhi is >like living “in an open gas chamber” . If American songwriter Cole Porter had lived here, he would have surely written about how we die a little every time we breathe Delhi air.
I was looking forward to returning to work in New Delhi which I’d left mid-2007. Now, hardly a month later, I’m not so sure anymore as I labour for breath. It is not because my wife fears moving back to Delhi where she had two episodes of breathlessness which required her to be rushed to hospital in the middle of the night for oxygen. It is because eight and a half years later, I too find it difficult to breathe, even in daytime.
Back then it was another city; now Delhi tends towards dystopia. The Bat-Signal would not penetrate as deep into the Delhi night sky as it would in Batman’s brooding city. If Batman were to come in from Gurgaon in his Batmobile during the marriage season when Delhi is host to 20,000 wedding receptions a day, he would not make it past the border. Even if he did, his Batmask would need to incorporate a heavy-duty air filter — one that keeps out very fine particulate matter — over his nostrils. Only the other day, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal retweeted pictures of two pairs of human lungs. One was baby pink; the other looked as though someone had aerosol-sprayed black paint on it. The pair of lungs in the pink of health apparently belonged to a 52-year-old man from Himachal Pradesh; the other belonged to a man, slightly younger, but from Delhi: the black was the charcoal deposit from air pollution. Practically every other Delhi schoolchild had impaired lung function parameters. At least that was the story ten years ago.
Now, the salbutamol-tinged conversations are a pointer. “And you, do you use your inhaler only when the season changes or throughout the winter?” People carry inhalers when they step out of home, where air purifiers work overtime, nebulisers are the equivalent of fire extinguishers, and inhalation kits do the function of handkerchiefs.
What about the have-nots? The other day a taxi driver recounted how years of driving an autorickshaw, open to the elements, for a living had turned him so asthmatic that he had to switch to driving a taxi, and how at nights he dreams of settling down in faraway Barmer as soon as his children finish college. I had thought I would buy a second-hand car in Delhi, but now that idea is in reverse gear — every person should help clear the air a little.
Clearing the air The Delhi air does not help its Chief Minister either. He is asthmatic and a bit of a maverick as well, battling daily with too many political demons. And this is why no one is sure if he will stay the course or will be allowed to either. Everyone knows that you need a special kind of broom to clear Delhi’s air. Mr. Kejriwal’s party’s symbol may not be nearly enough to do the trick. He may have had a foretaste of what he will be in for during the early chaotic days of the janta darbaar. He will find that it will not be sufficient to >simply get private cars with odd number plates run on odd calendar days and hope to even out the pollution on the other days as well. Why not add the 55 lakh two-wheelers to the odd/even solution as well — after all, they account for 32 per cent of the pollution? It is not enough for our Prime Minister to play the Climate Change Crusader at Paris and elsewhere. Writing coffee-table books (as he did explaining the great green work he did in Gujarat) is no solution either. It is far too late for that. Time has come for strong-arm methods. There is bound to be chaos as we fight the good fight. But let’s bring it on and not wimp out.