Cut the noise

Avtar Singh | Updated on January 08, 2018

Haze runners: Diwali’s smog is only one of the ingredients in Delhi's toxic pollution stew. The city’s residents need to look at their own lifestyles before things will change   -  PTI

There are no easy answers to Delhi’s pollution troubles

One of the Indian restaurants near us in Beijing does its bit for the local community by sending out boxes of mithai and sparklers for Diwali. A few phuljharis had revolutionised my homesick son’s mood last year.

This year, due to a ramped up clean-air campaign, there are no phuljharis. We’d been informed earlier, but like good desis everywhere, had figured that the lord would provide, jugaad would happen, sparklers would arrive with the katli.

In Beijing, apparently, no means no. But in Delhi?

In the days after Diwali, I monitored social media and asked friends and family back in Delhi whether they felt the cracker ban had worked. When pressed, there was a grudging admission that things had been “better”. But better than what: last year’s dystopian haze?

Jugaad was pointed to as a spoiler, the absence of civic sense, the bogey of “communal feeling”. Whatever the reason, its non-rigorous implementation meant the ban’s benefits were lost in the acrid fog.

But the Supreme Court never banned the bursting of crackers this year. Rather, it modified an earlier order, passed on September 12, which had lifted the stay on the sale of crackers. That “stay” — the original “ban”, if you will — had actually been in place since November 2016.

The Court had taken cognisance of the crap post-Diwali air last year itself. But nobody said you couldn’t burst crackers. Only that you couldn’t sell them. This in itself is solidly Indian, seamlessly combining passive aggression with po-faced legalistic wrangling, culminating in a top-down decree that’s bound to fall apart when it hits the hurdle of actual citizens.

If the Court was serious about doing something with regard to pollution, why stop at the sale of the offensive material? Its 2016 order, passed when Delhi was choking under weeks of relentless haze, was actually neither here nor there.

But how could it be otherwise? Why should it be otherwise?

It’s not really the Supreme Court’s job to be telling us how to clean up our air. If it is anybody else’s, apart from our own, then surely it should be the men and women we elect to make those decisions for us.

Let’s mull over the Indian fondness for effecting change by closing down businesses. I think a small trader dependent on two weeks of sales in a year is justified in being utterly pissed that his livelihood has been put at risk so arbitrarily. Has he been offered alternatives, a lead time to consider new revenue streams, even legal consistency?

If the Delhi or Central government passes such a law, so be it. The trader and patakha enthusiasts know who to call, mouth off at, vote against. But the people’s representatives know Diwali is a hot potato and so they’ve chosen to look away. Leaving someone else — in this case the Supreme Court — to take action.

Letting someone else take care of it is something we all should recognise as well.

Aside from phuljharis, I don’t like crackers either. I especially dislike the sort of idiot who ascribes a religious motive to those campaigning against them. Last I heard, asthma is non-sectarian.

But, given that I live many miles away, in a city many Dilliwalas still think is more polluted than theirs — it isn’t. Beijing isn’t even a third as bad, and that’s down to the citizens being on board with the clean-up programme — I flatter myself that I can audit the noise with some perspective.

In the truculent insistence that the patakhas were the real culprits lurk a few presumptions that sit uncomfortably with any real engagement with pollution. First, the insistence that there is one problem — or two, given that most people bitching about crackers also fixate on crop-burning. Second, that these are “law and order” issues; which is to say, make the law, order compliance, the rest be damned. Thirdly, very connectedly, someone else’s bad behaviour is the cause.

Through it all runs the desperate need for a quick, clean fix. The switch to CNG for all public transport in Delhi in the late 1990s was a game-changer. It whetted our appetite for silver bullets. Sadly, there isn’t one any more.

Diwali’s haze is just one of the pollution issues facing Delhi. Crop-burning, though a nightmare, is also seasonal, thus just another ingredient in the toxic mess. The harder nettle to grasp is that all Dilliwalas are complicit in the problem.

A random sampling: the electricity we’re completely dependent upon is generated from polluting fuels in outdated plants. Our homes and offices are surrounded by construction debris we ignore. We bitch about odd/even, and we still won’t abandon our cars for public transport.

Then, the larger environment — the weather and Delhi’s geography aren’t helpful. And the city isn’t going to stop growing. What will you tell people? Don’t come here, it’s full already!

The road back from a pollution calamity is long, slow, and starts with being clear-eyed about what is involved. There’s going to be no instant gratification, no blanket remedy prescribed by a Court that will magically scrub away the stains. (One notable exception is the Peripheral Expressway which, when — if — it finally opens, will ensure truck traffic not bound for Delhi will bypass it completely.) If we start now, take responsibility for our own choices and start making our lawmakers listen, Delhi may be liveable in a decade.

But if you keep thinking that it’s someone else’s bad behaviour that’s darkening your days, even that is too soon.

Avtar Singh is the author of Necropolis. He lives in Beijing

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Published on October 27, 2017
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