How to destroy a city
The fumes from millions of cars, construction dust, smoke from brick kilns outside the city, and massive amounts of smoke coming in from Punjab have resulted, quite literally, in the pronouncement of a death sentence for Delhi and its people
Between seventy and fifty thousand years ago, the planet earth had apparently frozen. Ice caps on earth were expanding as a result of a worldwide catastrophe that had occurred because of a monumental change in climate. Cold deserts in Africa grew, sea levels everywhere dropped, prey became rare in the drought, and hunters desperately searched for food. But humanity on the verge of extinction was miraculously saved by a massive leap of development in the human intellect.
In order to survive, a small group of humans living in the severely cold and parched Africa fifty thousand years ago were able to think the unthinkable — they had the idea of leaving Africa forever. It was assumed that these earliest humans probably left Africa by foot walking over the frozen lands.
Today, as the sea water slowly creeps inland in countries such as Bangladesh, lack of rain destroys farmlands in Ethiopia and elsewhere, toxins in the air pollute the many metropolis of the world, a wave of migration also goes hand in hand with these changes.
A World Bank report released this years shows that by mid-century, this internal population shift triggered by our changing environment could lead to the migration of more than 140 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America, most of them moving to other places with better environment conditions within their home countries.
The World Health Organization has declared New Delhi to be the most polluted city in the world, ahead of Beijing, while the World Bank found that the air pollution in New Delhi was almost three times higher than that in Beijing. Toxins such as benzene are 10 times higher in New Delhi than the acceptable level, and levels of particulate matter skyrocket, especially in the winters. The fumes from the eight to nine million cars, construction dust, smoke from brick kilns outside the city, and massive amounts of smoke coming in from Punjab — where farmers burn their paddy stubble — have resulted quite literally in the pronouncement of a death sentence for Delhi and its people. “Only God can save us from this pollution!” declared a group of Delhi residents. In desperation, several have started holding havans — a truly novel, absurd, and ironic solution to curb pollution, by which they burn large amounts of wood, and offer different items in the fire to please the Gods for purifying the air.
I have a deep admiration for Delhi. It is a city I chose to return to four years ago, after 14 years of living abroad. When I returned, I was not an outsider or an expat embarking upon a Delhi adventure, viewing it neither with orientalist admiration nor scepticism. Instead, Delhi had been my port of departure after living through high school and four years of university here, before I returned to it as an adult.
Delhi’s tree-lined topography, marked with striking ancient monuments on the round-abouts, a few roads hosting peacocks unfurling their feathers, sprawling relics and medieval stepwells interspersed with modern bazaars and market complexes, residential ‘colonies’ partitioned by large public gardens, hardly would seem to be a likely candidate for receiving the honour of being the world’s most polluted city. I thought I could enjoy the beauty of this fabulous city, in part by tackling the predicaments of Delhi’s traffic and pollution.
And so, to avoid the daily dose of traffic fumes, I chose to live in a neighbourhood close to my work place. Within the first week of my move back, I filled my bedroom with snake plant and my office with tall money plants and spider plants. I also had air purifiers fitted in every room at home and the workplace, to hopefully lessen the toxins I would inhale. With this arrangement, my mind was more at ease than my lungs, until six months ago when I gave birth to our first child.
We dared not take our newborn outdoors in the toxic air, and keeping him indoors amidst the plants and air purifying machines was depriving him of learning and play. There was neither hesitation nor ethical or professional dilemmas, when we took the decision to move out of Delhi and live in Goa where our baby boy could live for the first few years of his life in more natural settings and cleaner air.
Migrating because of extreme conditions in the environment is not new, and is instead rather important to protect an infant who can not fend for himself. In the past year alone, there has been a marked exodus of the middle class from India’s charming capital city. Often the reason has been to provide better air to their children. Some would say that it is an ethical dilemma for those who have a choice to willingly raise children in a place where there are extreme environmental challenges — be it pollution, drought, probability of floods, or the ice age.
The emphasis on pollution has become a seasonal thing that springs up every winter, much like the roses of Lutyens’ Delhi. Every year, we also speak or read about it mainly around the festival of Diwali. Similar to the topic of upliftment of women that surges on March 8 and then ebbs an unabashed retreat right after, prioritising one’s health and survival amidst the pollution in Delhi seems important — mostly sporadically.
The remaining times of the year, we turn a blind eye to this massive public health issue, perceive it as a first world problem, or put in place a band-aid quick fix — as I initially did — to beat the pollution simply in our personal surroundings. Today, we are one of the many families that have had to move out of Delhi because of its air, accepting the lifestyle change as a trade-off. Au revoir, Delhi.
Miniya is the author of Indian Instincts: Essays on Freedom and Equality in India, Penguin Random House (2018), and the CEO of Sustain Labs Paris, the world’s first sustainability incubator.
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