On Friday, the Supreme Court banned the sale of firecrackers in the national capital region centred on Delhi. But the damage to the environment had already been done. The statistics in Gurgaon bear testimony to this. The air pollution in this information technology hub went up by three times the permissible limit on the same day.
Let me begin by telling you what happened with me this festival of lights.
The morning after Diwali, as I opened the curtain of my bedroom window, I realized that the sun had vanished. There was a thick layer of smog and near-zero visibility. The people of Delhi and surrounding cities spent the next week breathless and coughing. The met department claimed that air pollution had broken a 17-year-old record. It was also said that New Delhi was already the most polluted capital in the world—a disgraceful record—and its air quality would go down a further few rungs.
Even as Delhi was terrified, its leaders were busy with their usual political manoeuvring. The state government said the pollution was caused by stubble burning in neighbouring states. Somebody else described it as a failure of the Union government and a few others began lamenting about the blame game. Leave aside taking any long-term steps, a few meetings were held and the recommendations emerging from them were presented as if the government was about to take some revolutionary steps.
But they were just waiting for the speed of the wind to increase to take the smog away.
It wasn’t just the national capital region that was bearing the brunt of pollution. Many places in north India were surrounded by a deadly layer of smog. Even healthy people were getting anxious owing to a burning sensation in their eyes. During those days, I was getting the feeling that we were heading towards a dark age where nature would lose its inherent balance and the entire world would go berserk.
At that time, I had thought I should share my thoughts on the subject with you. But what can one do. First, the currency demonetization and then the ensuing political storm overshadowed this issue, which is crucial to humanity. It wasn’t the case just in India. The Donald Trump vs Hillary Clinton debate was at its peak at that time. Don’t you think opportunistic leaders and their political ping-pong has displaced issues that are crucial to mankind?
In a world that has turned into a global village, the problem of pollution isn’t just the problem of a particular region, but a problem for the entire mankind. There’s a need to evolve a common strategy to tackle the problem that can be implemented uniformly across poor and rich nations. Regulars at international environment summits know that even there, certain nations want to blame other nations for their own misdeeds. A few helpless developing nations allege that petty-minded developed nations are responsible for spreading nuclear, chemical and all kinds of other waste in the world.
Why should they be punished for others’ misdeeds?
Returning to India, a few ‘progressive-minded’ people had appealed before Diwali that fewer crackers should be burst this festival of lights. Almost simultaneously, a group of ‘nationalists’ was clamouring on social media not to buy Chinese-made crackers. It is another matter that even here some people found a way to make a quick buck. They replaced the labels on Chinese crackers with ‘Made in India’ labels and began an exercise in profiteering. Despite this, I felt relieved when I read that cracker sales in Delhi had declined this year.
I couldn’t retain my enthusiasm for very long.
By the time it was 11pm, I was surrounded by noise and suffocating smoke. Leave aside the environment, those who love fire-crackers don’t even care about their neighbours who want to sleep peacefully. I was forced to watch two films on television back to back that night. It was 1.45am, but the commotion in my housing complex was showing no sign of dying down. I opened the door of my balcony in order to find out who these great men bent upon disturbing the peace of not just their own but others’ minds were. I was shocked to hear some children announcing: “jaagte raho, jaagte raho (keep awake, keep awake)!” Certainly, their parents had used their children as shields. They had forgotten that certain senior citizens and infants in their housing complex had been rendered breathless by the smoke. They had conveniently forgotten that by doing this, they were imperilling the future of their own children.
I want to clarify that I have no problem with the beliefs and value systems of a particular religion. My only request is that a country that believes ‘dharyate iti dharma’ (a religion is one that can be adopted as a way of life), has no place for suicidal stubbornness in the name of faith. Here, I should remind cracker lovers that the first organized factory of firecrackers was set up in India in 1940. Only after this did they become part of Diwali celebrations.
These days, there is another issue that needs to be regulated. Statistics reveal that one out of seven children living on this planet stay in areas that are vulnerable to air pollution. Close to 600,000 children aged five or below die of diseases where pollution is one of the primary causes. Every year, pollution kills more people than terrorism, civil wars and accidents put together.
The question is: why maintain this suicidal silence? Are we waiting for the world to turn into a gas chamber?
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan.
His Twitter handle is @shekharkahin