Home / Opinion / The air we breathe: If not now, then when?

In the summer of 1816, George Gordon Byron, while escaping a scandal in London, and Mary Shelly, while eloping with Mary Godwin, met in Geneva by chance. They were staying in the same hotel. The summer was unusually dark with incessant rain due to a freak climatic event—the eruption of a volcano near Bali that vomited huge dust storms that engulfed much of our planet. Forced to stay indoors, Byron suggested they write ghost stories. Shelly began writing. Her story was titled, Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus.

Two hundred years later, this week, Delhi suffered from an insufferable smog, unseen in its recorded history. Quite poetic, then, that industrial production has itself become our climactic Frankenstein. The difference is, we have failed to realize it. The horrific air we breathe in every day in many parts of the world, is the new normal. So much that we need even more disastrous events to discern how abnormal our new normal is. We have assumed a stoic posture towards our own annihilation; Amitav Ghosh calls it The Great Derangement.

The abnormal atmospheric moment which Delhi is just emerging out of—I daresay—is a golden ‘opportunity’. Events like these have historically been the trigger for executing progressive laws and directives for our environment, in most parts of the developed world.

For instance, the ‘Black Tuesday’ of 28 November 1939 (our society’s obsession with the 1929 Black Tuesday of the Wall Street crash is ironic here), when a dense cloud of black smog engulfed St Louis, Missouri, due to a meteorological inversion, hanging over the town for more than a week. The city had been experiencing heavy burning of coal for heating purposes, but Black Tuesday smog pushed an otherwise indifferent city council not only to initiate cleaner supplies of coal but to issue new smoke ordinances.

In October 1948, a small mill town in Pennsylvania called Donora suffered from what many still regard as America’s worst air pollution disaster. The resulting asthma and other respiratory disorders killed 20 people and made 7,000 sick. Industry didn’t take responsibility but the government had to give in. The event triggered massive campaigns against air pollution, leading to the Clean Air Act of 1970.

And then there was the Great Smog of 1952 in London, which may be ‘grey’ in some of our memories still. Again, windless conditions with airborne pollutants in the cold weather gave rise to a thick fog. This was a result of the indiscriminate post-war use of low coal and the coal-powered thermal stations. The Great Smog was responsible for around 4,000 deaths of very young, elderly, and those with pre-existing respiratory disorders. The event led to new regulations like the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968 and a host of other directives restricting polluting activities in the city.

The burning of crop-waste, the windless situation, temperature inversion and Diwali night came together to give Delhi its nemesis; the deathly smog that hung over the city this week. It has begun its departure, leaving millions horrified. Before we turn to business as usual, let us remind ourselves, nothing is usual. This is a moment of reckoning and of collective action, and we will not get another chance in many years. Everybody, quite literally, is suffering. And we should not let this suffering go in vain.

Medical institutions must get statistics of the increase in respiratory disorders and deaths/sickness attributed to this smog. Amusingly, quite like Delhi, Londoners had failed to ‘notice’ the severity of the Great Smog of 1952, having been subject to frequent occurrences of London smog, which they called “pea-souper" (why are we not surprised at English terminologies!). Only when the statistics began pouring in were citizens alerted.

There is a need for intense media coverage. The Donora smog got multiple awards for writers who published on it. It must capture the imagination of Bollywood, artists and documentary makers. When India is a crucible for social change, journalism and entertainment assume far more social capital than anything else.

Scholars must be funded and encouraged to research on the apportioned contribution of pollution sources in Delhi. Such examinations are crucial for informed policy analysis.

Even governments can afford to become immune to vote banks, and use this as a justification to push for sweeping reforms on air pollution in Delhi, regardless of the burden on the rich.

Restriction on pollution-inducing activities may be costlier for the rich but will result in bigger health benefits for the poor. Given the state of air emergency, even the elites will favour restrictive measures. This is one moment when the rich would be happy to surrender a few hours of comfort in exchange for disease-free lungs for their children.

The government’s plan to de-register old diesel vehicles, keep trucks out, prohibit firecrackers in weddings and ban fires may not be palatable to society at any other time. Courts have another chance of building (hopefully) meaningful policy mandates. And indeed, after the demonetization policy announced by the Prime Minister, there’s a renewed vigour towards radical reforms.

Donora today has around 5,000 people residing there. They have a museum called Donora Smog Museum which bears the slogan—Clean Air Started Here.

In Delhi, you’re all wearing masks. Maybe it’s time to take this masked ball to the streets.

Yugank Goyal teaches economics and environment at the O.P. Jindal Global University.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com.

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