Smog and New Delhi

The Hari Putar Dialogue - 32

(BBC News; 13 November 2008: For days the Indian capital, Delhi, has been shrouded in a blanket of smog that has put the city's dreaded pollution problems back in the news. Look out over the capital and you see trees and tower blocks starting to disappear into the lingering grey mist or haze. It is as if Delhiites have been living through a perpetual fog, which the sun only penetrates in a weak and wintry way. By the end of the day you can almost taste the pollution in the air. And all over the city people are snuffling and coughing, and blaming it on the smog. There's a widespread sense that the city is losing ground in its anti-pollution battle. )

Putar: A report carried on the BBC website today states that for many days now Delhi has been shrouded in a blanket of smog.

Hari: That's true, putar. I understand visibility is very low in the city because of this situation.

Putar: Pollution problems are back in a big way, it seems.

Hari: That's true. Ten years ago, Delhi was among the most polluted cities in the world, but action was taken which helped improve matters considerably. For instance, eight years ago all buses, taxis and rickshaws were required to switch over to ecologically friendly fuel - compressed natural gas. That made a huge difference.

Putar: Around the same time the Supreme Court ordered the closure of hundreds of small polluting industries. That also helped.

Hari: It did. Trade unions protested that this would lead to the loss of thousands of jobs. A BBC reporter spoke of how this was a fight between 'red' and 'green': the leftists and the environmentalists. It is now time for action again. The smog was terrible last year as well, but this year I understand it's worse.

Putar: Pollution is not a problem confined to Delhi though. Other Indian cities have been affected as well, especially Calcutta. There was a report some months ago that police stations across the Indian city of Calcutta have been equipped with oxygen devices to enable police to offset the effects of pollution.

Hari: What a situation! It's bad enough combating terrorists. Traffic policemen in some cities have to brave some of the worst pollution in the world.

Putar: According to a report some 70% of people in Calcutta suffer from respiratory disorders. Traffic policemen are among the worst hit by poor air quality. Calcutta's traffic police chief, Javed Shamim, says his men have the facilities to take oxygen for at least 20 minutes after doing an eight hour shift amid the dust and smoke of the city. Now the city's 11 traffic offices, where policemen report for duty, have been equipped with oxygen concentrators that are normally used for patients in hospitals.

Hari: All this pollution can cause serious illnesses.

Putar: Calcutta tops all Indian cities when it comes to lung cancer - at 18.4 cases per 100,000 people - far ahead of Delhi at 13.34 cases per 100,000.

Hari: What's the biggest reason for all this pollution?

Putar: Automobiles! As India boomed economically in recent years hundreds of new vehicles are being registered every day. In Calcutta 50,000 auto rickshaws that use 'kantatel' aggravate the problem. This is a fuel made out of a deadly concoction of kerosene and petrol.

Hari: Why use this?

Putar: It's cheaper, as the Government subsidizes kerosene, although it's meant to be for cooking purposes. Environmentalists say that the toxic fumes released by the autos pollute the city's air more than anything else, but no one can touch them, because auto-rickshaws drivers are protected by powerful trade unions.

Hari: This problem of air quality is not confined to Indian cities of course. Take the case of Beijing during the Olympics.

Putar: That's true. It's a global problem.

Hari: In Delhi the Pollution Control Board claims to have made substantial progress. It claims that carbon monoxide levels are down by 50%, and that the amount of sulphur monoxide in the air has been cut by nearly three-quarters. Is this true?

Putar: According to the independent environmental watchdog, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), these figures are correct on average across the year. But a CSE spokesman said in the winter months there could be a build-up of pollutants. While overall levels of gases like carbon monoxide have fallen, the amount of dust, petrol and diesel matter in the air had been on the rise for the past three years. On windless, winter days this "particulate matter" can combine to cause serious problems.

Hari: What solutions does the CSE advocate?

Putar: The spokesperson said improvements to public transport are very much needed. He also called for better methods of alerting people to air quality problems, enabling those with respiratory difficulties to steer clear of the worst affected parts of the city. 

Putar: Tell me something Papaji?

Hari: Bol, Putar?

Putar: According to the CSE spokesperson, the authorities must continually think of new ways to combat the pollution menace.

Hari: That's right.

Putar: Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States is famous for having once said: 'Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.'

Hari: He is regarded as one of the great US Presidents and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence.

Putar: But Jefferson lived a hundred years ago in the state of Virginia in surroundings with clean air. Had he lived in one of the world's polluted cities today he might have said: 'Eternal vigilance is the price for clean air.' What do you think?

Hari: I guess that's possible, Putar.

Putar: One more thing, Papaji.

Hari: Bol, Putar.

Putar: The seer Nostradamus is reported to have predicted that in the future men will look like pigs.

Hari: I understand that he made some fantastic sounding statements, Putar.

Putar: In major cities all over the world you now find traffic policemen wearing masks that look like snouts. You even find motor cyclists and pedestrians using masks. And this big black pollution mask makes them look like pigs. Do you think that this is what Nostradamus meant?

Hari: I don't know Putar. 


More by :  Rajesh Talwar

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