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When death is in the air…

When death is in the air…

I was, am and will probably forever be allergic to dust and smoke. Prolonged exposure to polluted air i.e. a long walk in many Indian cities, and I am down with a cold plus congestion, flu, and the works. The worst bouts happen in Delhi and Calcutta, especially in the cooler months. Given that visits during these months are for festive reasons, being sick puts a big spanner in the works. Sick me cannot really traipse around the city all day and sick me loses appetite big time, depriving restaurants of my patronage, which is, of course, the larger issue!  So I have been following the air India (no pun intended) debate for a while.

While reading about the latest shootout in the USA, it struck me that the air quality debate in India bears an uncanny resemblance to the gun debate in the USA.

Two killers – one slow and silent; one quick and loud.

Opinions – are divided even when everyone knows the issues are lethal and should be stopped. Distinct ‘us’ and ‘them’ groups, each thumbing their noses at the other.

Victims – Everyone suffers, those who are affected and those who watch their loved ones being affected. Children, the most vulnerable, are worst hit.

Delhi, our national capital, has reached the exalted position of being one of the most polluted cities in the world. Washington D.C. was, till the late 90’s known as the ‘Murder Capital’ of USA because of rampant gun violence.

America has 4.4% of the world’s population but almost half of the civilian-owned guns globally. There have been more than 1500 mass shootings since Sandy Hook in December 2012. On an average, there is more than one mass shooting for each day in America. 

The incidents of gun violence are a part of the weekly news in the US. The gun lobby and its supporters bury their heads in the sand and pretend the violence will go away or there will be something bigger to talk about the next day. Citizens claim they ‘need’ guns for self-protection and take shelter behind the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution which protects the right of the people to keep and bear arms and was adopted on December 15, 1791.

With every incident of a senseless mass shootout, citizens voices of dissidence grow louder. And maybe someday, reason will prevail and the madness will stop.

For novices: Air quality or ambient (outdoor) air pollution is represented by the annual mean concentration of particulate matter PM10 (particles smaller than 10 microns) and PM2.5 (particles smaller than 2.5 microns). For perspective’s sake, the highest reading (PM2.5) in London is currently 69, and anything above 300 is considered hazardous.

India’s air pollution statistics are staggering. We have a majority stake in the list of The World’s Top 20 Most Polluted Cities (PM2.5 )  with Gwalior, Allahabad, Patna, Raipur, Delhi, Ludhiana, Firozabad and Lucknow finding space. 

With 2.51 million deaths in 2015, India ranked at No. 1 in pollution-related deaths in the world, according to a report by The Lancet Commission on pollution and health. And air pollution is the top cause of death among these.

The air quality in Delhi is currently the top trending topic on and off social media. It is a recurring pattern, with a similar situation each year. Then the furore dies down and we move on to the next trending topic.

The data for Delhi NCR below is sourced from http://www.dpccairdata.com, the official website of the Delhi Pollution Control Committee. I selected 4 locations, far from each other.

As of 00:30 hours today: At 631, Shahadra in Old Delhi was more than double of what is considered hazardous. Okhla too is over 300 and Najafgarh just below. And people are living there, breathing noxious air. At 21:50 today, Shahadara is at 755!!!

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Citizens are looking at the government to find a solution and there is a deafening silence from the top echelons of powers that be. But to be brutally candid, most of us want a convenient solution. Something that works for us even if it is not really in the larger interest of the nation. The odd-even policy was ridiculed last year despite nobody having a better idea. Less than a month ago, there was a huge debate about banning the sale of firecrackers in Delhi, with people up in arms about how insensitive it was to curtail age-old tradition and deprive people of merriment during their biggest festival. Politicians went to the extent of getting crackers from other states just to defy the ban; after all sale was banned, not purchase.

The task of making our air clean/er is mammoth. From helping farmers to find cost-effective measures to clear their fields so that they do not have to burn crops, from stopping rampant tree felling and eradication of green cover to educating the common man, there is a tremendous amount of work to be done.

What can citizens do? Simple changes to our lifestyles can be of help to the air we breathe. Using air purifiers would help our immediate environment and keep our lungs relatively safe while we are at home. Switching off air conditioners would help. Using the green fuel, getting cars serviced and carpooling whenever possible are simple means we can adapt to make our air a little bit better. Keeping the right plants in homes and offices is a simple yet effective way of battling the air menace. Each of us can also spread awareness among the less aware because this menace affects everybody. Last but not least, we can desist scoffing at activists who have to battle powerful lobbies to get results which will ultimately benefit us all. They seem to be the only ones out there, working for causes tirelessly, very unlike some who are happy to debate and sign petitions on social media while sitting in diesel cars when not bursting crackers at weddings or setting up factories spewing smoke.

It is interesting to note that Stuttgart, home to Porsche and Mercedes-Benz is moving towards a possible ban on diesel cars. Environmental group DUH went to court two months after the Volkswagen scandal in September 2015 where VW admitted to cheating emissions tests. Since then diesel cars have been scrutinized for nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions blamed for causing respiratory disease. “Safeguarding health is more important than the right to property and the general liberty of the car owners affected by the ban,” said Wolfgang Kern, the presiding judge at the Stuttgart administration court. Analysts say they expect other German cities to follow suit swiftly if Stuttgart puts a diesel ban in place. (Source – Reuters)

Our nation has a glorious legacy of movements that have brought people together and changed the course of history. From the Swadeshi movement in 1905 to Chipko in 1973; from Narmada Bachao in 1985 to Nirbhaya in 2012; we the citizens have united to bring about change. It is time to do that again. For us and our children who deserve to breathe clean air. As someone smart said, “Don’t let our future go up in smoke.”

Breathe India! Breathe clean and breathe free. 


– Taraa Vermaa Senguptaa.


EFF Times (Editor)


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