“Landed in Delhi with heart in my mouth. Thick screen of smog over the capital. Couldn't see a thing till the wheels hit the tarmac,'' tweeted Naveed Iqbal on Sunday evening. Elsewhere in the virtual world, a well-designed graphic of the Qutab Minar inside a packet of cigarettes has gone viral, with the tag: “Statutory Warning - Delhi is injurious to health”.
Bharat ka Dil, Dilli is gasping for breath for its lungs. Delhi is now a gas chamber, whose hawa, paani is toxic. Air quality, according to India Spend, in “large swathes of Delhi is 40 times above WHO safe levels and six times above Beijing emergency levels”.
1800 schools in Delhi have been shut down. My friends tell me the air quality is distinctively different the moment they step out of home. Some have been putting up posts on Facebook showing the amount of dust their air purifiers are accumulating in just two days.
The next war, they said so far, will be fought over water. Delhi, choking for breath, raises an alarming prospect. Imagine a war for clean air.
For all our aversion to things made in China, Beijing is the template to follow if we want to save Delhi. Beijing issued its first pollution red alert in December last year, shutting down all schools, factories and construction sites. Odd-even formula kicked in and heavy fines were imposed on polluting units. Work is on to reduce use of coal.
Can Delhi do a Beijing, with its proclivity for indiscipline and “Jaanta hai mera baap kaun hai” VVIP attitude? At the moment, all the Delhi government has done is to halt constructions for the next five days.
It is a frightening situation where Delhi's air has got so toxic that the city is asthmatic. Clinics are recording a sharp increase in number of patients reporting respiratory ailments. My apprehension is that leaving the city for good for many will become a fait accompli. In fact, that is the only prescription the doctors are dishing out as well.
Many expats have already pressed the panic button and packing their bags. As far as Indians go, it may sound a far-fetched thought at the moment but given our abysmal track record in cracking the whip, an informal Dexit is not entirely impossible. The central government's environment minister has already declared it is an emergency. Why wouldn't Delhites explore options outside Delhi?
The problem is, should that possibility arise, the Dilliwallah has no other city to go to either. Because if Delhi is in the Critical Care Unit, many other cities are waiting in queue to secure admission to the ICU. According to official data, 94 other cities in India too find clean air in short supply.
Consider Bengaluru for instance. Vehicular emissions and Metro rail construction are two among many reasons, why there is a 5 per cent decline in air quality every year. But the Karnataka government does not get it. Which is why it thinks nothing of axing 812 trees in the heart of Bengaluru to build a steel flyover. The green cover that this garden city is home to, is the best antidote to heavy metal that is released into the atmosphere. The ICU-like situation is because Bengaluru has already bid goodbye to 55000 trees since the turn of the century.
Imagine the conversation in the near future before a first-time meeting may go something like this:
“I will meet you at MG Road. But how do I recognise you?”
“I am wearing a red mask with kalamkari work. It is styled by Manish Malhotra.”
Hyderabad is on a similar wicket. The construction of the Hyderabad Metro Rail donates a permanent dust haze to the city. For a multi-flyover project ostensibly to reduce traffic jams towards the city's IT corridor, the administration reportedly wanted to significantly eat into the green cover at the KBR National park. But for the respective High courts staying the projects in both cities, Bengaluru and Hyderabad had purchased the application form to get converted into cities of masks and air purifiers.
The logic usually given is that thousands of saplings will be planted. Does cutting a tree that has existed for 30 to 40 years for ten saplings even make sense? This when reports suggest that even during the high-profile plantation drive undertaken by the Telangana government, the mortality rate was close to 50 per cent.
The hottest commodity in Delhi today is a mask and they are flying off the shelf. But it is far more necessary for Delhi to save itself by unburdening itself and turning a new leaf instead of subjecting citizens to yet another tiresome bout of AAP vs BJP vs Congress politicking. Because to ape Muhammad bin Tughlaq who foolishly moved his capital from Delhi to Daulatabad (in present-day Maharashtra) in 1327, isn't even an option in today's India.
At the moment, the only song that sums up Delhi's plight is this Suresh Wadkar number based in Bombay from 1978 film “Gaman”.
Seene me jalan, aankhon me toofan sa kyun hai
Iss shehr me har shaks pareshan sa kyun hai
(Why is the chest burning, why is there a storm in the eyes? Why is everyone in this city so troubled?)