It’s that time of the year. The time when baleful spirits engulf the national capital territory. When a tangible evil, a blanket of vile grey smog, covers this megalopolis where millions toil. When the air turns so miasmic that one wonders whether to suspend an involuntary and basic bodily function—breathing. But how? Life is not like civil rights and cannot be suspended during an emergency. And so the laments start. About how the right to life should entail—did they forget to put it in the Constitution?—the right to breathe air that’s not toxic. But rest assured: We will get the whole chemistry lab.
The fine respirable PM2.5, the coarse PM10, oxides of nitrogen and sulphur, the dreaded carbon monoxide, urban dust mixed with farmland smoke. It’s apparently not as bad as last year. An early warning system that foretells bronchial doom three days in advance has been put in place. An old coal power plant has been shut down, and use of gensets restricted. But such is the seasonal anxiety that people have already started buying face masks. Delhi NCR is, after all, the worst urban sprawl in the world in terms of air pollution.
Last year, foreign diplomats and embassy personnel simply took flight. For those left behind, nothing works: neither the odd-even scheme to curb private vehicles, nor water-sprinkling copters. Dust storms in the Gulf, stubble-burning nearer home, Diwali fireworks, all conspire to line Delhi’s lungs with muck. Stubble-burning has been a perennial headache. As Punjab CM Amarinder Singh says, it’s easier for cash-strapped farmers to buy a matchstick than expensive harvesting machines that leave no stubble. And the window between one harvest and the next sowing is narrowing. Budgetary allocations are duly made to wean farmers away from polluting practices, but too little given the scale. And disbursal has been tardy. Punjab and Haryana are not the only places where this practice exists, farmers in California do the same —but they factor in the wind direction and other variables. In India, though, we believe in sowing a vile whirlwind.