Indians who’ve never lived through a winter in Delhi or the Gangetic belt cannot understand what it’s like to breathe there in the cold season, when the weather, contrary to Marx’s epigram, causes all that’s air to freeze into solids. Mumbai residents must remember what it’s like to be on the road at ten in the morning on a flood day, halfway to work when the waterlogging reaches knee height, creeping up to the engine of your bike or auto, stalling out the BEST bus that’s churning up the road just ahead of you.
In northern India, the anxious discomfort of that short-term crisis overcomes your life for three months between November and January – if, that is, you have the privilege to imagine and long for alternatives.
North Indians see, smell and taste bad air more constantly than their fellow citizens, but almost every urban Indian finds it harder to breathe in the cold months than any other. Bad air is a seasonal hazard, but it is also linked to our climate crisis, and how deeply we stand to be affected by it. 2020 is additionally ominous: it is our first
Earlier this month, this column reviewed Kalpish Ratna’s enjoyable and thoughtful ‘A Crown of Thorns’, a reflection on the early days of Covid-19. One of the key arguments of that book urges us to pay attention to PM 2.5, the particulate matter that causes Delhi’s peasoupers and Lucknow’s haze – and irritates our airways when we breathe it in, blackening our lungs and decimating their ability to resist inflammation. Meanwhile, air pollution killed over a million people in India last year that we know of. What do we do?
India is still finding its way to the answers. We have a lot of data, though it’s nowhere near enough. We have scientists, activists and journalists working on explaining the sheer magnitude of the problem to laypersons, though it remains hard to convey. Bureaucrats and policy-makers are experimenting with solutions. Even governments are concerned, as a notable Twitter spat between
Entrepreneurs develop new kinds of air safety devices to sell to wealthy Indians, who buy them to exercise what little control they can over their family’s health.
In ‘The Great Smog of India’, published in 2018, Siddharth Singh laid out a compelling case for accepting air pollution as one of our great challenges, something we may be reluctant to do because we see it as a necessary price to pay for development, a hazard that we can tackle after we’ve become a rich country. That is a cruel misappropriation of the logic of markets, Singh argues, because pollution affects our health and our work so acutely that it is both a giant economic loss, and an ‘unfreedom’: an evil that lessens our humanity and contradicts our
In early 2019, the economist Dean Spears published a book titled ‘Air’, aimed at the Indian voter. This isn’t because air pollution is a viable election issue, or even because governments may be trusted to safeguard the interests of the most vulnerable Indians – children who can’t vote, and the yet-unborn, who will suffer to a degree we never have to – even if so. Nonetheless, Spears wrote, policy changes could make a difference within our lifetimes.
We can find alternatives to coal. We can re-imagine agriculture to mitigate the crop residue burning that makes Delhi’s November air a brown soup. We can afford to produce, and even to buy new, cheap air filters and cookstoves for the millions of Indians who are trying, or were trying before this year, to lift themselves out of poverty. Above all, as Spears’s book argues, we can make a compelling case for air pollution to be a symptom of the massive climate injustice that emerging economies have suffered because of the greed and carelessness of the developed world.
But with all this, I’m not sure air pollution seems real to most Indians, even those of us who are dying because of it. I’m not sure why. No one who’s seen the haze over the Bandra-Worli Sea Link on a December day would ever argue that the problem is invisible. We are all characters in an ongoing tragedy, and no one seems to want to even bang a thali about it. Perhaps what this haze needs is not only policy and political will, but also an effort of imagination, and of a way to bring people together as something other than statistics in a readout. We are only as healthy as the stories we tell ourselves, and it is not only the colour of our air, but of our very breath, that depends on this.