A video clip had gone viral recently, one which showed car after speeding car ramming into the one ahead of it in a terrible pile-up on Yamuna Expressway. It was an absolutely incredible story—not because several people had got injured or many others, including school-children in so-called school vans, could have died there. It was shocking because any sane person would not even venture out in that kind of smog. But the thick blanket of blinding smog did not deter the Delhi drivers from standing on their accelerator pedals and hurtling towards sure death. This, I thought, was a metaphor for modern, urban living and city planning. Our cities are dying a sure death, one way or the other. It could be pollution somewhere, filling up of water bodies somewhere else, illegal constructions all over or vector-borne diseases elsewhere. The reasons differ, but our planners and rulers are all driving blindly, taking us along with them towards sure disaster.
The best example is obviously Delhi, where there is no dearth of money, power or prestige. The only thing that the capital city lacks is planning and caring. Everybody knows about Delhi’s killer smog in November-December. Most of it is caused by crop stubble burning in Haryana, Punjab and western UP. That is, the city becomes a smoke chamber. This happens every year, but our rulers wake up only after doctors declare a public health emergency. Then, they hold endless meetings. As Indian Express’s brilliant writer Harish Damodaran explained, this stubble could be extracted mechanically, thus helping the farmer and everybody else in Delhi. The farmers set the crop residue on fire because removing it manually is time-consuming and labour-intensive and they simply cannot afford it. So, they need a solution. A simple mechanical contraption, which the Delhi chief minister can buy and gift to every panchayat in the crop-burning districts of Punjab, Haryana and UP with a thank-you note from all of us asthmatics.
Meanwhile, the central government should have completely disincentivised the sale of diesel—the most polluting fuel—and heavily discounted CNG engines. Even now, diesel is much cheaper than petrol, forcing buyers to choose diesel cars. I have not heard about any executive decision that would help a car-buyer or a seller contribute to a cleaner Delhi. Sure, electric cars are coming and we are praying for their early arrival with a breakthrough in battery technology (please see the cover story) but by then many of us would be battling serious lung ailments (see the interview with the pulmonologist). Even the Opposition is not concerned. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi could have got the Punjab chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh to build a giant air purifier and donate it to Delhi. A video of a purifier in Beijing had, meanwhile, gone viral. Though there is a debate on its efficacy, even as a technology demonstrator this giant smog-eater displayed a government’s concern, its search for solutions and its ability to respond to a health emergency. All virtues sorely, or rather gaspingly lacking in Delhi.
Sure, we will suffer this year’s smog in suffocation. But, let me let out a big secret, there will be crop burning, smog, toxic air and deadly sickness next year too. And there will be meetings and petitions also. Or instead of blindly hurtling into next year’s smog, should we stop and think of easy solutions like the mechanical contraption that would pull the stubble out, cash-incentives to farmers, cleaner fuels for Delhi and newer tech interventions like the giant purifier.