On the same day that actor Aamir Khan gave voice to the sense of growing disquiet and despondency in the country that had his wife, Kiran fearing for their son, enough to ponder over moving out of the country, a friend of mine told me of his decision to leave India as they were worried about their baby daughter.
Their driving force was different though, and compelling (Note: I am not using this forum to comment on Aamir's statement and enter into the debate), and it has to do with the fact their 20-month-old child is breathing the world's dirtiest air. The child, I will call her Aranya (she is not fictional, have protected her identity), has been ailing with a rasping cough, and she doesn't seem to be recovering. The doctor reassured the anxious parents - it's not fatal, or alarming. At least, not at the moment.
Aranya, he said, was possibly taking so long to recover because of the deadly air pollution, which he said impaired lung functioning. He explained that children were especially vulnerable, as their immunity system was still developing. The doctor said that many of his young, and not-so-young, patients were coming in with similar-and other ailments - including asthma, bronchitis, sinusitis, coughs, colds, eye, throat, chest infections etc.It can eventually lead to lung cancer or cardiovascular disease.
The good doctor is not talking in the (toxic) air. We know that Delhi has the most polluted air on the planet, having usurped Beijing, the capital of the country it hopes to emulate.
The statistics are frightening: As per one study, nearly 45 per cent of Delhi's children do not function with full lung capacity, with little chance of recovery. Four out of every 10 children in the capital suffer from severe lung problems. Put another way, many of Delhi's toddlers and kids have the lungs of seasoned chain smokers.
The "Festival of Lights" rings in a season of cheer. Sadly, as we burst crackers to celebrate, it clogged our lungs further, with the amount of particulate matter (PM) spiking over to 20 times the safe limit. PM 2.5 is especially harmful to those susceptible to ailments of the respiratory tract, and is carcinogenic. At around midnight on Diwali, in one Delhi colony it peaked at 853 microns, or 34 times the WHO limit of 25 microns per cubic metre, while the Indian acceptable limit is 60. In RK Puram area, it was worse peaking at 985 microns per cubic metre. As per newspaper reports, there has been no letting up post-Diwali, Delhi continues to take in noxious air.
When air touches such destructive levels, even Beijing declares an emergency, closing kindergarten and schools, and temporarily shutting industries.
Yet, Delhi continues as though breathing poison is nothing out of the ordinary.
Why just Delhi? In fact, India has the dubious status of having no less than 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world.
Regardless, India continues to raze forests, build over wetlands and mangroves, concretise urban forests and open green spaces, which are key to improving air quality. We define forests as the "lungs" of our planet, yet we destroy them with impunity. By some estimates, India clears well over 150 hectares of forests daily. Scientific studies have established that forests, green spaces, wetlands - filter air pollutants, absorb carbon emissions, provide protection from extreme temperatures. Yet, India is currently proposing to dilute the very environment laws which protect forests and regulate air and water pollution.
And in our city, we imagine that we are "protected" just because we stay in gated colonies with names like "Deerwood Chase", "Aravali Greens", "Nature's Nest", etc - built, ironically, over the graves of the green, they espouse.Meanwhile, my friend's family is packing their bags. Sometimes, I wonder too. It occurs to me, every time I do my kapalbharati (as espoused by the Noble-deprived Baba Ramdev), and forcefully draw in the city's toxic air in-and-out of my body. Besides, the migraines that frequently cripple me are triggered by air pollutants, the sinus eases up as I leave the capital's virulent environment for greener pastures, and the growth that is spreading across my body has its roots - among other things - in organochlorine pesticides.
Yet, worse than the appalling pollution, is the indifference, indeed almost an aversion to take concrete steps to curb it. If we fail to acknowledge the gravity of the problem… there is little hope of resolving the issue. My friend tells me Aranya loves to be out in the open, to walk, run, take wing… like the birds she delights in.
How will she walk and run and play, when doctors advise it is safer to be cooped indoors rather than breathe outside?
He believes that breathing healthy air is his child's fundamental right.
So, how will you view his moving away from India, seeking crisp, clean air, clear skies, sparkling water?
Will you call him anti-national? Just for the record, though, he isn't catching the train to Pakistan.