Gasping for breath
A Lancet report claims that PM 2.5 air pollution has caused half a million premature deaths in India in 2015.
The head hurts so much that the temples seem to be bursting at the seams. The eye socket feels as if someone is physically playing 'knock knock' jokes behind it. The eyes themselves are dry, they burn and for me, wearing contact lenses has become impossible. "You have a dry eyes problem," the ophthalmologist in Delhi told me two years ago. "Switch to daily disposable lenses. Your eyes can't breathe otherwise," he said.
When this ailment first affected me in the winter of 2014, I had ignored it. A year later, when the doctor revealed the poor health of my eyes (my contact lenses would not sit and kept falling off), I quickly switched to daily disposable lenses, temporarily, thinking that was the cure. Over the next year, I was not able to wean off the daily disposable lenses. Multiple doctors said that the health of my eyes was similar to that of a much older person. Last year, when the headaches also increased, I forgot what it meant to live without pain. I obviously blamed the uptick in my work that is done mostly through computers and smartphones.
In November though, after Diwali left behind a shroud of thick smog exacerbated by uncontrolled stubble burning from Haryana and Punjab, dust from construction and effluents from surrounding industrial plants, I knew I needed relief. Not only did the pain in my eyes become excruciating, I felt depressed, nauseous and low, fatigued and without energy, my throat was scratchy, and the air I breathed smelt of toxic smoke. I escaped to the hills of Uttarakhand to fortify myself to face the rest of the Delhi winter. That is when I realised the bodily harm that the capital's pollution was causing me and I thanked the gods that, at least, I am not asthmatic.
The fabled lovely winters of Delhi do not exist anymore. Picnics at Lodhi Garden or a leisurely early morning walk through Lutyens' Delhi is hazardous to health. Over the last few years, noxious fumes engulf the capital routinely every winter, causing grave health problems to all its citizens. The Air Quality Index (AQI) crossed 999 this year and a day out on Delhi streets is akin to smoking 50 cigarettes a day! Schools are shut, 'odd-even' makes a comeback, and the capital turns into a gas chamber with people struggling to breathe.
This year compared to the last, there had been enough hue and cry from the state government as well as the courts. It had seemed that this time around, things would be different. But it's been worse than ever before. So much has the air pollution increased that even Beijing looks better than our capital. We have brought it upon ourselves. Unchecked construction, continued crop burning, increase in the number of cars, have all contributed to the mess that we today find ourselves in.
Indian governments, both central and state, are famous for working in retrospect. We bring in laws, ban activities, only when the crisis has presented itself. It is shocking that when the entire region is struggling to cope with the smog, how there were no measures taken to ensure road safety on our highways? Car pile-ups on the Yamuna Expressway and the tragic incident of a truck running over 25 people, simply shows, once again, how lightly we take the issues of pollution and road safety. A Lancet report claims that PM2.5 air pollution has caused half a million premature deaths in India in 2015. Human life here is cheap.
Only extremely proactive measures can save the capital and the other cities and towns of north India. Bar the trucks from entering city limits, stop the construction, ban the stubble burning—governments must do whatever it takes to give us the clean air that we deserve. But till that happens, every winter I will stay out of Delhi as much as possible, and so will lots of others who can afford to. For the rest though, it will remain a modern gas chamber that slowly but surely saps one of good health. The governments must act now.
(The writer is a journalist and media entrepreneur. The views expressed are strictly personal.)