Why Delhi is gasping for breath

Damayanti Datta
Damayanti DattaJun 15, 2018 | 14:04

Why Delhi is gasping for breath

Those who live in Delhi will certainly remember these surreal times: June air blowing like hot breath from morning to night and a world seen through a semi-transparent haze of dust. The city glows with an unholy orange light during the day and at night street lamps shimmer like fuzzy globules. Every moment feels like the calm before a storm. It’s like Dante’s inferno: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”


It’s not end of all hope for all. This is where the president of India lives in his 340 room-palace, surrounded by 190 acres of garden, atop the Raisina Hills; the prime minister does yoga in his verdant lawns; the chief minister sits in dharna at an air-conditioned visitor’s room at Raj Niwas; ministers and MPS vroom around landscaped Lutyens' roundabouts; bureaucrats’ wives share green wisdom with their gardeners; other Delhi elites hop from homes, to cars to offices in islands of air-conditioned comfort.

People trying to take shelter from a dust storm that hit Delhi. [Credit: Reuters photo]

The rest of Delhi is choking on dust. Delhi air is “severely” compromised, we are being told, with PM10 at 981 µgm-3, the safe limit being 100 ugm-3.

Where is it coming from?

Sometimes, these dust-laden wind comes from the Gulf (where mismanagement of land and water, conflicts and climate change have made sand and dust storms more frequent, you see).

Sometimes, it’s from Punjab and Haryana, where farmers refuse to listen to anyone and keep burning stubbles, from May-September and again from November-April (a new phenomenon that has started with mechanised harvesting since the 1980s, because the machines leave foot-tall stalks in the fields).


Sometimes it’s from Rajasthan, as is happening now, with massive whirlwinds from Afghanistan and Pakistan entering India — two-hoots to the LoC (those countries have been sweltering in record-breaking heat recently, giving rise to exceptionally strong north-easterly winds, even forming a river of brown dust over the Arabian sea.)

After three days 

The important people of Delhi have woken up. Lieutenant governor Anil Baijal has banned all construction work in the Capital until June 17, when (fingers crossed) the dusty winds are supposed to get weak. Municipal corporations and the Delhi Pollution Control Committee have been asked to ensure water-sprinkling on major roads, construction and waste sites (have you seen any?).

As always, the onus is on the citizens. We are being asked to stay indoors as much as possible, avoid burning candles or even incense, keep homes clean (no vacuum), wet mop floors frequently, use advanced N-95 masks or P-100 respirators when going out.

A solution nobody wants

Experts say, for millennia such winds were blocked by the mighty Aravalli ranges, with millions of trees acting as a green barrier to pollution. The presence of the Aravalli ranges stopped the expansion of the Thar Desert towards Delhi and Haryana. But now, with rampant tree-felling, land grabbing, encroachment and relentless blasting for mining limestone, silica, quartzite, stone and red sand, the mountain is getting eroded and losing height. Its green cover is so patchy and lakes so dry, that wildlife is fighting an existential battle. Blasting has created deep pits, so deep that they cannot be levelled anymore.


Aravalli hills: with rampant tree-felling, land grabbing, encroachment and relentless blasting for mining stones, the mountain is getting eroded and losing height. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Nagarjun Kandukuru]

Did you know that 98.87 lakh metric tonnes of minerals were illegally mined in the Aravallis in Rajasthan in the past five years, according to a 2017 CAG report? And that Haryana, despite repeated interventions by the Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal, has been tinkering with the laws to enable FDI in mining, allow roads and constructions along with real-estate groups to venture in? Many of these projects, by the way, have been sanctioned by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests.

A perfect case study of missing the forest for the trees.

Last updated: June 15, 2018 | 15:02
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