It’s daybreak in Guwahati and smoke billows into the sky as I take the wheel for my long drive back to Delhi. It is the last week of November, and a nip in the morning air is just enough to set off fog, or smog in this case. The smoke came from burning waste by the roadside. Although the city has a functional garbage collection system, households and roadside vendors burn dumps of leaf and plastic litter. And then there is road dust and ground-level ozone which adds to the deadly cocktail in the air. All this hasn’t deterred the morning walkers and runners, though pulmonologists have been putting out alerts that it is not the best time to go out for such physical activity.
I leave Guwahati through the new Saraighat Bridge, opened for traffic in 2017. The old bridge, completed in 1962, is still functional but is now ‘one-way’—for vehicles coming into the city. This was the first road-cum-rail bridge on the Brahmaputra, connecting the Northeast to mainland India. At 6 am, the sun is already up—the day begins an hour early in NE and a separate time zone is long overdue—but the great river is shrouded in haze. Like elsewhere, Guwaahati is ‘developing’ at the cost of the densely-forested hills, a part of the cityscape. So are the quaint ‘Assam type houses’, which are giving way to rows and rows of apartment blocks. Needless to say, the city has become very dusty these days, with the ongoing construction work leading to a spike in cases of respiratory illness. The city’s PM2.5 levels hover around 160 µg/m3, 16 times more than the WHO standard of 10 µg/m3, and the AQI around 165, but no one seems to be bothered. Everyone I met was more concerned about me getting back to polluted Delhi.
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The sky turns blue as I race towards Rangiya and then Nalbari where the Pagladia—which translates to ‘mad river’ in Assamese—flows. The river is a tributary of the Brahmaputra and is prone to erratic flash floods during monsoon. Traffic was minimal on the highway—at this early hour only school children of various age groups, some walking, some on cycles, made a pretty picture amid the Covid restrictions.
Driving through rural Assam, which oozes natural beauty, I wonder what could go wrong with the air. After Nalbari, I drive through Barpeta, Bongaigaon and finally Kokrajhar, the Bodo heartland, before crossing into West Bengal. All three districts are as polluted as Guwahati, according to the Air Quality Life Index. Life expectancy of people living here is going down by five years. The same number applies to Alipurduar in Bengal where I soak in the natural beauty of tea gardens and forests. This is the famed ‘Dooars’ of North Bengal where heavily-fragmented forest patches remain a refuge for elephants and one-horned rhinos, along with a spectacular cast of avian life. However, these days, leopards prefer to hang around tea estates than their forest homes.
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I saw a Rafale take off from Hashimara, a strategic airbase hugging the Bhutan border, the jet’s roar shaking up the entire landscape. From Hashimara, it took me three hours to drive up to Siliguri. And here it was goodbye to blue skies. Siliguri has grown over the years as a major tourism, transportation and business hub. The congestion, smoke and traffic are like any other town bursting with life. And it took me an extra hour to go through the chaos and head towards Naxalbari, the site of the famous peasants’ uprising in 1967 and from where we have the word Naxalite.
The highway skirts the Nepal border, dropping down to Thakurganj in Bihar where biomass burning seemed the order of the day. A common practice all along my journey as I clocked the kilometres. Somewhere between Thakurganj and Pauakhali, I pulled up to the sight of endangered adjutant storks foraging on wetlands on the Mahananda floodplains. Through my field glasses, I saw one catching a snake in the company of openbill storks, migratory ducks and waders.
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The air pollution data here throw a scary picture. While Delhi hogs the headlines, air pollution is also taking away nine years of life expectancy along the entire stretch of Bihar and further into Uttar Pradesh. Two states with a combined population of 338 million, most of them economically challenged and lacking basic amenities.
Driving too becomes tricky through the smoke, dust and haze in places like Araria, Darbhanga and Muzaffarpur, where people and livestock amble across the highway as if the entire landscape is one big private living room. Further, I had to dodge children dancing and stumbling on the middle of the road to local numbers belted out from cycle rickshaws hawking items of daily use. But it becomes worse once I cross into eastern Uttar Pradesh. Many moons ago, a senior bureaucrat referred to UP as ‘ulta pradesh’ and now I knew why. I navigated trucks, minivans and cars, all coming from the wrong side on the speed lane. There are no rules, and driving here is like a high-octane video game.
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Stubble or crop residue burning is in full swing as I notice the slow death of wetlands across the landscape. There is no wise use of our commons— only misuse, with illegal constructions visibly on the rise. As dusk rolled in near Gorakhpur, layers of toxic soot floated over villages spilling on to the highway. A scene straight out of a dark fantasy movie. Coal and biomass have wreaked havoc here: the chief minister’s home turf.
Driving from Gorakhpur to Lucknow was through unending convoys of marriage parties in white SUVs. Having lived and survived Delhi’s smog chamber, I found Lucknow’s air to be worse. However, the Uttar Pradesh government thinks very differently—it told the apex court that polluted air from Pakistan is the cause of Delhi’s hazardous air. Not the industries or coal-fired thermal power plants and biomass burning which comprise 70 per cent of our energy basket.
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As my destination nears, I wonder how the Central government’s ambitious National Clean Air Programme to tackle air pollution by 2024 is even remotely possible. Rural India is equally gasping for clean air while we keep talking about how Indian cities exceed the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which are already watered-down from limits set by WHO.
After a couple of days of negotiating chaotic traffic, sanity returns on the six-lane Lucknow-Agra Expressway, which seamlessly links up with the Yamuna Expressway for Delhi-NCR, and it’s a real joy to sit behind the wheel here. The sun is an orange blob on the sky, and haze a constant companion on the entire stretch but I still manage to spot pairs of sarus cranes, the tallest flying birds in the world, in the fields along the Etawah-Saifai stretch. But somewhere, I feel, the drive on the expressway takes away the experience of travelling through India’s hinterland. It may be safer and quicker but definitely lacks colour, character and hides the stories which unfold along the way.
(This appeared in the print edition as "A Bridge Too Far")
(Views expressed are personal)
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Ananda Banerjee is an author and environmentalist