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Nobody Gives A Damn:
The Deadly Cocktail Of Poisons In Delhi Air Is Perfect Example Of Everything That’s Wrong With India

SHIVAM VIJ, Quartz India




It’s as if the ghosts of 1984 haunt the capital of India today as, 33 years after the great genocide, thousands of criminals responsible for the mass murders even though identified and evidence readily available, walk the streets free.

Around every annual anniversary of the pogrom, a heavy, deadly, blinding fog settles on the city. Doctors say it shortens the lives of its citizens upon each appearance, eerily reminding them of the horror and terror of their recent past and the ongoing condoning of the same.

The city is in the death-grip of a “gas chamber’, experts say. Others call it ’apocalyptic’!



It is shocking but not surprising: for the last few years, smog over large swathes of north India heralds the winter.

Everybody knows it will happen. We know that come November, the air quality index will shoot through the charts. And the failure to prevent this massive public health emergency, year after year, is a perfect example of everything that is wrong with India.

We The People Don’t Care

Public discourse of air pollution, from WhatsApp groups to the streets, is about which mask to buy, which air purifier works best, which indoor plants to get, and whether eating jaggery gives immunity against particulate matter (PM) 2.5.

There’s a strange lack of outrage over government inaction. We’ve seen the studies and the data. The smog over our skies reduces our lifespans. PM 2.5 enters our lungs and our bloodstreams. Headlines have screamed, for three years now, that doctors are telling patients to leave Delhi if they can.

A World Health Organisation ("WHO") report has claimed 2.5 million Indians died of pollution in 2015 alone -- the largest number of pollution deaths in the world.

Breathing the Delhi air these days is said to be like smoking 45 cigarettes a day.

These warnings perhaps don’t move us because, like climate change, we think the price we’ll pay with our health will be in the distant future. But when the smog peaks so much that people start seeing the smoky air inside their houses, when cars start ramming into each other on the highways and killing people, you’d think there’d be widespread public anger.

As Delhi rose up in anger against rape in December 2012 or against corruption in August 2011, you’d think citizens would be angry with the government.

But beyond sharing pictures of low visibility and cracking jokes on social media, the people are not demanding action.

It’s symptomatic of India: we don’t see clean air as a right, our expectations of our government are generally low, and we have long made peace with the idea that we are a mess of a country.

The elites close themselves with expensive air purifiers and imported masks. Their hold over public discourse means, for instance, that people don’t demand better transport that would reduce vehicular pollution.

India’s Government Doesn’t Care

We get the government we deserve. To use another cliché, there’s lack of political will. The authorities know exactly what they need to reduce air pollution, but the implementation in India begins after the disaster has struck.

Headlines even in the international press have been telling for years that India has the worst air quality in the world. The planet’s most polluted cities are concentrated in this country. You’d think prime minister Narendra Modi would at least want to be seen as doing something about this, if not actually doing something.

Modi hasn’t said a word.

In December 2016, India’s supreme court ordered the central government to come up with a comprehensive plan to reduce pollution in Delhi and its suburbs. It took the government 10 months to notify the plan, known as the Graded Response Action Plan.

An analysis by IndiaSpend found that under this plan, the government should have issued 30 alerts to citizens, and taken various measures by November 8, since pollution had started rising in October itself. The government did no such thing, waking up only when rising pollution became white smog, beyond emergency levels.

Evasive measures, like banning construction activity and reducing the entry of trucks into that city, should have been taken days ago, but were implemented only when the air went from alarming to apocalyptic.

Last year, Delhi faced the worst smog in 17 years. The Delhi government had promised various long-term measures, such as the vacuum cleaning of roads to reduce road dust, but such measures haven’t gone beyond experiments. This year, too, they will make various claims and promises, only to forget them by spring.

In September, the union ministry of road transport actually requested the National Green Tribunal to lift its ban on diesel vehicles that were older than 10 years. Instead of helping, it appears, the government wants to worsen air pollution!

It is easy for the government to say it has banned the entry of trucks that aren’t going to a destination in Delhi, but it’s still difficult to figure out where exactly a truck is headed. And why blame truck transporters anyway when the construction of an eastern peripheral road for them began only in 2015, a decade after the supreme court ordered it. It was supposed to have been finished by August this year, but in the long list of the deadline extensions the latest word is March 2018.

What about public transport? Instead of putting more buses on the roads, the number has actually reduced from over 6,000 to under 4,000 in six years. The Delhi government is struggling to find parking space for new buses. Despite this fall, Delhi’s buses carry more passengers than its metro system, the extension of whose network has been severely delayed.

The ban on burning farm residues has been implemented half-heartedly in Haryana and Punjab because alienating farmers is not easy for politicians. The states need huge public investments to make it affordable for farmers to find other ways of stubble disposal, but why should the provincial governments care when the public does not?

One can go on and on, and one will find that in every aspect of fighting pollution the government has been sleeping at the wheel.

Who Is The Government Anyway?

Successfully implementing the Graded Response Action Plan needs coordination between 16 different government agencies -- and we are talking here only of Delhi and its suburbs, not the rest of north India. Such coordination between different government institutions controlled by different political parties and interests is impossible in India’s federal structure.

The Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab defends farmers for burning stubble, asking that they be compensated. The same party’s chief minister in Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, puts the blame on Punjab’s chief minister, Congress politician Amarinder Singh, saying he isn’t cracking down on the farm fires.

On his part, the latter says only the Central government can take the lead. Meanwhile, the central government’s environment minister, Harsh Vardhan, a politician from Delhi, was in Goa when the capital faced an emergency situation. Waking up after days to the issue, he said the state governments have to do the job.

Other than the state governments, he also passed the buck to the weather, adding that the air will be normal again in a few days, why panic? Keep calm and carry on.

Not his fault. He is only reflecting the Indian answer to difficult matters: chalta hai, it happens.

Gimmicks As Policy

Meanwhile, the odd-even car-rationing gimmick is back. The main cause of pollution is road dust and farm fires, but even within vehicular pollution, it is trucks and two-wheelers. But the noise-making elites who drive cars are made to feel guilty by a shrewd Delhi government.

In any case, the winds will arrive by the time people are done discussing if leaving their cars home has reduced the smog.

So, until next year, do nothing.

[Courtesy: Quartz. Edited for]
November 10, 2017

Conversation about this article

1: Bimal Kumar (Gurgaon, India), November 10, 2017, 3:56 PM.

I was thinking of the very same thing when the poisoned air/gas hit us first this November, as it does every year, right on cue. Your editorial comment prefacing the article has sent shudders down my spine. You know, the Bhopal gas tragedy took place less than a month after the Nov 1-3 anti-Sikh pogroms. And guess what? Bhopal was the location of one of the worst anti-Sikh massacres outside Delhi during the first week of November 1984! I'm beginning to think there IS a God up there.

2: Hardev Singh  (Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada.), November 10, 2017, 10:09 PM.

Right on. Dead right, Shivam Vij, as well as the comment by Bimal Kumar. Had the same feeling, which I could not articulate. It is God's Judgement.

3: Kevin Oster (Albany, New York, USA), November 11, 2017, 9:03 AM.

Every time I read a report from India of gang-rapes of mothers, sisters, daughters (and nuns, visitors and guests too!), of pillage and plunder by the country's own leaders, and now of the pall of death which shrouds its cities, the words of Shakespeare immediately well up in my mind. The following, slightly paraphrased by me, are from the mouth of Mark Anthony: "A curse shall light upon the limbs of men. Domestic fury and fierce civil strife Shall cumber all the parts of [India]. Blood and destruction shall be so in use, And dreadful objects so familiar, That mothers shall but smile when they behold Their infants quartered with the hands of war, All pity choked with custom of fell deeds, And [the spirits of 1984], ranging for revenge, With [Kali] by [their] side come hot from hell, Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war, That this foul deed shall smell above the earth With carrion men, groaning for burial."

4: Kulvinder JIt Kaur (Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada), November 15, 2017, 5:21 AM.

India is polluted inside out, i.e., the corrupt mentality matches the exterior landscape. This apathy towards the present situation is the national character of India. No wonder so many waves of invaders came to plunder or rule this country and stayed for centuries. Some invaders came year after year to loot but the people of the land took no measures to counter it ... until the Sikhs addressed the issue. Indians are not a people fit for self-rule. It is hilarious that this sham democracy is described by the West as the "largest democracy in the world". It is a totally failed, corrupt and now unhealthy country to live in.

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The Deadly Cocktail Of Poisons In Delhi Air Is Perfect Example Of Everything That’s Wrong With India"

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