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Away from 'Dilli, meri jaan'

The worsening air quality in Delhi is a public health emergency looming large

Away from Dilli, meri jaan

Last year, I took a life-altering decision. After working and living in Delhi for a decade, I decided to step away. In the three years preceding my decision, I had suffered badly in the city to which I owe a lot of my achievements, struggles, success and failures alike. The pollution was unbearable and took a toll on my health. For me, it was not the inability to just breathe - the most basic human right - but even the frequent bouts of depression and negative thinking that I was managing to fend off; ultimately, it became my inability to see.

Years of exposure to toxic air was affecting my eyes. I have been short-sighted since the age of 7 or 8. Over the years, I started wearing contact lenses which stabilised by eyes. But with a -6 power, I always knew I had to be extra careful. Being diagnosed with dry eyes was always an eventuality but the capital's pollution simply exacerbated the problem. Every day, I would wake up with excruciating headaches. My entire skull, shoulders and neck would be in constant pain. My contact lenses wouldn't sit on my pupils and I had to switch over to expensive daily disposable lenses. I was in constant agony but trudged on for years while accepting the pain, living with it. To think with a clear mind unburdened by pain, I would take frequent road trips. Just crossing the Delhi-NCR borders and receiving clean, breathable air, would rejuvenate me. No more headaches, I could think and write freely, unfettered by the nagging pain.

In 2017, when the problem seemed to be spiralling out of control, an eminent ophthalmologist warned that I may even lose sight in future if I didn't do something quick. I decided that for the sake of health, no matter the allure of being in the capital with its myriad work opportunities, I would have to work out an escape. And I did. It took planning, more hard work, and frequent, costly flights (I am still in Delhi every other week), but finally, I was able to distance myself from the city; much like from an exciting but often draining relationship.

This year, as I sit away from the noxious air and stare at the stunning clear blue skies of Kolkata, I worry greatly over every impending Delhi visit. The air has also worsened and the news reports are deeply alarming. The AQI numbers are staggering as the city and its people gasp for breath. World Health Organisation estimates that over 1 lakh children die in India in a year because of air pollution. And though Delhi may be the worst, a number of other Indian cities are fast catching up.

It is not the few days of cracker-bursting on Diwali alone that causes the city to be out of breath. It is every other activity all year round that contributes to the choking masses. Stubble burning, construction activities, industrial and vehicular pollution, all add up to create this gas chamber of breathlessness. And it is us too; all of us who have lived and worked in that city, or any other for that matter, who have accepted the deteriorating conditions, almost with resignation and often with ignorance. Today, we protest and revolt against the government but this situation has not crept up overnight. Therefore, the solutions too cannot be knee-jerk reactions and ad hoc decisions. A public health emergency is looming large and the government, both state and Central, must devise a strategy accordingly. It should have been implemented several months before the air quality threatened to turn 'severe' in winter. And we, as citizens, must abide and help in any way possible because no amount of wealth and success can come at the cost of one's health. Some of us have been fortunate to have bid adieu to long stays at the capital because now we asphyxiate when we say, 'Dilli! meri jaan!'

(The writer is a journalist and media entrepreneur. The views expressed are strictly personal)

Shutapa Paul

Shutapa Paul

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