It's toxic in Delhi. Does nobody care that pollution will kill us all?

Pathikrit Sen Gupta
Pathikrit Sen GuptaNov 08, 2017 | 12:52

It's toxic in Delhi. Does nobody care that pollution will kill us all?

I have breathed Delhi’s air for decades and seen it gradually change: in appearance, odour and, yes, taste. I have learnt to live with a recurring burning sensation in the eyes that doesn’t spell desire, frequent off-the-cough statements in casual conversations, and being left huffing and puffing after a short run. Who cares, in the long run, we are all dead anyway!


But something has happened; something that spooked me to the bottom of my normally insensate soul.

It was around 1.30am on November 8. I was on my way home from work. There was something in the air: a slight chill and billions of toxic particles of myriad shapes and sizes. Still, at least the first half of the Noida-Delhi commute was almost pleasant. There were very few motorists out and about. My driver (who wishes to remain nameless, so let’s call him Dilip Jha) was playing old Hindi film tracks with the dexterity of an out-of-work DJ. We did agree that the scale of the smog was unusual for this time of the year.

The car crossed the border and entered a dormant capital city. We turned a corner and DJ slammed on the brakes, letting out a flurry of profanities in Hindi. I looked up from my phone and could immediately see his point, but nothing else. Poor visibility is routine during winters in Delhi. However, this was something else — like a Stephen King novel come to life. Forget metres, we couldn’t see anything more than three feet away in any direction.


Both DJ and I knew the road ahead had a few speed bumps and a couple of pillars of an upcoming Metro route, apart from the odd pothole that decks nearly every Delhi street. The smog was so thick that it even seemed to muffle our voices. DJ drove at a walking pace with all the car lights on. We were wracking our brains to unravel the cause of this unearthly occurrence.

Could it be the proximity to a lake, the burning of wood by neighbouring shanty dwellers trying to stay warm, or the construction work of the Metro and an expressway nearby? Perhaps this was the outcome of the countless firecrackers that millions of citizens around the country must have burst to celebrate the first anniversary of the government’s visionary demonetisation move.


We were peering in every direction and a flicker of light anywhere brought with it the dread of a possible vehicle guided by a careless driver. Then we came upon another car going in the same direction at an equally languid pace. One of the more thoughtful occupants had got out of the vehicle and was walking next to it, playing the role of a navigator. We followed the car for a few hundred metres before it turned towards a byway. But by then the visibility had improved moderately and DJ didn’t need any assistance for the rest of the trip that we wrapped up with a couple of weak jokes and some nervous laughter.


Perhaps as much has been written about PM2.5 and PM10 in the city’s air since Diwali as PM Modi's demonetisation. Many of us now know that burning of solid waste and stubble in and around the capital, vehicular emissions, and dust from construction sites are major contributors to the city’s smog. Most are also aware of measures that are likely to help.

The Lancet journal has suggested that India can tackle ambient outdoor air pollution, in the short term, by first identifying sources of pollutants to enable targeted interventions. This can be done by installing dust management systems, establishing monitoring systems, mandating improved fuel quality and engine standards. In the medium term, it needs cleaner vehicles, including testing stations, control on diesel vehicles, incentives for use of electric and hybrid vehicles and upgrading the public transport.

But, despite a thrust by the judiciary, implementation by governments has been patchy and knee-jerk. The toxic air has killed thousands and is slowly killing millions who don’t even know it. Still, political bickering has far outstripped public-interest measures. Perhaps it is time for citizens to once more take to the streets and shake the authorities out of their slumber.

Otherwise, this city will take your breath away.

Last updated: December 21, 2017 | 10:25
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