Do we live in gas chambers?
On the way to Delhi from Noida, I was crossing the Yamuna as I do on most days. But today, somehow, this richa (verse) from the Atharva Veda began playing in my mind: Prithivi Shantirantariksham Shantirdyouh Shantirapah Shantiroshdhayah Shantirvanaspatayah Shantirvishwe Me Devaah Shantih Sarve Me Devaah Shantih Shantih Shantih Shantibhih (May there be well-being on Earth. May there be welfare in the universe. May there be well-being in the heavens, in the water, in the world of medicine, in the world of flora and fauna. May there be well-being in the world of gods through divinity.)
Sadness gripped me even before I could finish the verse. The Yamuna riverbed was never very wide in Delhi. But the river was so deep that at one time Mirza Ghalib began his river journey to Kolkata from here. Isn’t it unfortunate that this river of eternity has turned into the capital’s largest drain? On top of it we have the noxious air and the smog that impairs our vision.
This is the state of affairs in a nation of nature-worshippers!
No wonder the Supreme Court, the National Green Tribunal and a number of social organizations are crying in unison that we are facing a climate emergency and the governments should wake up and smell the smog, to no avail. Instead of evolving a consensus, senior leaders of the centre and states are busy lobbing the ball in each other’s court. Don’t they realize that if this continues for another few years, nature won’t spare any of us? In nature’s eyes, the king and the commoner are alike.
These questions are bound to be asked in this scenario: Why doesn’t pollution ever become an election issue in India? Until when will we continue to invite devastation in the name of development?
It has become crucial to address these questions because the conditions have deteriorated so much. Last Wednesday, 15,000 scientists from 184 countries warned in one voice that unless urgent steps were taken, Planet Earth will be damaged beyond repair. These scientists have put their signatures on an article in the BioScience journal titled, World scientists’ warning to humanity: A second notice. The scientists say the first warning was sounded 25 years ago but since it was ignored, crucial steps were not taken to prevent cutting of trees, dealing with holes in the ozone layer and climate change. Things went from bad to worse. As a result, the quantity of water decreased by 26% and three million acres of jungles disappeared. In a quarter of a century, the decrease in mammals and birds was to the tune of 20%.
The importance of water, animals and forests for human beings cannot be overemphasized.
According to the World Health Organization, 12.5 million people perish every year owing to environmental causes. Of these, 6.5 million die owing to air pollution alone. This number is 11.6% of worldwide deaths. It is important to realize that 92% of the world’s population is breathing in areas where the air is no longer safe for them. That is why about one million people in China died of pollution-related diseases in 2012. The statistic for India was 600,000.
Those upset by the poisonous air in Delhi and the national capital region should know that gas chambers have sprung up around them. Last year those Indian cities that were considered the world’s most polluted included Gwalior, Allahabad, Patna, Raipur, Delhi, Ludhiana, Kanpur, Khanna, Firozabad and Lucknow. In other words, half of the worst polluted cities are located in north India.
How would you describe it, if not call it nature’s emergency?
That is why everybody from the country’s highest courts, to the man on street, from the centre to states is waiting in anticipation. But is the ground reality changing?
The chief ministers of Delhi, Haryana and Punjab have been busy fighting Twitter wars for a long time. Many days later, when the CMs of Delhi and Haryana finally met, Punjab’s Amarinder Singh played truant. Are political differences and selfish interests more important for these politicians than the lives of those who have voted them into office?
Hitler had built gas chambers for the Jews, whom he hated the most. But our rulers have turned our cities and villages, where their voters live, into gas chambers.
Let’s not forget this. We are the descendants of those who sought well-being in the elements of nature.
Today those very elements are looking towards us for their own well-being. Obviously, we exist because of them and not the other way round, and keeping them safe will ensure our own safety.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan.
His Twitter handle is @shekharkahin.