Pollution Diaries/ Waiting for a turnaround

October 30. It’s post Diwali. Crackers were burnt on Diwali flouting norms and bans. The stubble burning continues unabated. Waste and plastic burning hasn’t stopped. Construction continues left, right and centre releasing hazy mid-air dust. Diesel vehicles continue to spew toxic smoke. Noisy gensets release black clouds in the air. Just as the winter temperature begins to set in, once again, we find ourselves in unliveable air quality conditions.  

November 1. The air quality has deteriorated to “severe” and “hazardous” conditions. Symptoms of breathlessness, choky throat, watery eyes are reported; vulnerable sections feel more miserable. Moms in masks queued up outside the school to pick up children complain about how the Gurugram authorities were lax in declaring school holidays despite rising pollution. There is frenzied discussion on what types of masks and anti-allergens to buy for kids and how to engage them in indoor activities. There is hardly any sunlight as the sun continues to hide behind thick smog, just the haze and the feeling of depression. A morning walker friends meets at a store and is frustrated about not being able to walk in the park. She asks me to skim the market to see if better versions of air purifiers are available to replace her old one. Meanwhile, indoor badminton coaching at a private centre continues despite the bad air. Aren’t kids inhaling more harmful particles in the air with their rigorous workout on the court? Some children are coughing but still at it. On my way back, I spot a fire brigade truck sprinkling water on plants near the HUDA metro station and I wonder what more are the authorities doing to curb the menace.

The Internet, Whatapp and Facebook are replete with pollution news. Just like last year, there are directives from the government, notice from pollution control authorities, the graded action response plan (GRAP) has swung into action, pollution stories hit as breaking news in newspapers and on television channels. This time, the Delhi authorities are distributing thousands of free masks as Delhi announces its schools will be shut till November 5. Once again there is talk of using public transport and car-pooling, composting waste and reducing open waste dumps, of tightening pollution checks of vehicles, of introducing new technologies for brick kilns, of banning diesel autos. The GRAP has talked about banning all construction activities, hot mix plant, stone crushers and coal and other fuel-based industries till November 5 and banning of crackers for entire winter. There should have been a ban on diesel-sets too, but authorities say it is not implementable.

Meanwhile, the German Vice-Chancellor Angela Merkel is on an official visit to India and is part of the ceremonial parade despite the toxic air. She grants “green funds” for urban transport including for introducing electric buses in Tamil Nadu, but also urges to clean up the toxic air in Delhi.

More from Whatsapp. There are satirical jokes and songs on pollution. Some well-meaning advisories on what to drink and eat during high pollution days and what indoor plants to be put in rooms. There is a debate on whether the odd-even vehicular scheme of Delhi government is worth it.  Weather forecasts and AQIs from all sources are being relayed. Some people are hoping of the westerly winds to blow away dust particles, others are praying for the rain gods to have mercy. There are even talks of whether India has the technology of inducing artificial rains like China.

November 2: Pollution eased somewhat with winds and some drizzle but remained in the “severe” zone. Cricket players from Bangladesh and India announced that they will play their T-20 match on November 3. They were seen practicing at the nets with the masks on.

My two cents:  It is become an annual November ritual. Pollution rises to nightmarish levels. We all crib and cope in our own ways. There are some half-hearted attempts by authorities and some government rhetoric on it. And very soon, it is business as usual. The masks go into the almirahs. More private vehicles enter our roads. The authorities continue to cut trees for the sake of development. The industries and construction sector will continue to flout pollution norms and the waste burning continues.

There is a price to pollution, some obvious and short term, some hidden and long-term. With most of the world’s top polluted cities located in India, it has been said that one-fourth of the global premature deaths due to pollution happen in our country. The WHO claims that India had the highest number of children deaths under five years due to PM2.5 exposure in 2016. Besides, premature births, lung cancers, respiratory ailments, heart diseases and diabetes are attributed to pollution. There is also an economic price of pollution – from unhealthy workforce to falling investments, and greater investments needed to control pollution.       

Cities all over the world have time and again demonstrated that pollution is controllable. For us in India, it has to become a “national emergency”. Short, medium and long-term measures have to implemented to tackle each major cause of air pollution and the measures have to be strictly enforced and monitored in a time-bound manner. Both, central and state governments have to put this on top priority, local authorities have to ensure enforcements. While the National Green Tribunal and the Supreme Court keeps an eye on government initiatives, citizens and citizen initiatives have to play watchdogs.

An optimist that I am, I do hope there is a pollution turnaround, and that we do not feel as helpless as we did this time post Diwali.

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