Smog Crisis: Delhi is Not Poisonous, Its People Are


Smog Crisis: Delhi is Not Poisonous, Its People Are

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Were Samuel Beckett to be born in India – Delhi especially – he might have kept his ideas about absurdism to himself. In a country where the absurd is the norm, and perhaps nothing quite explains the Capital like what Beckett labelled “blaming the shoe for the fault of the feet”. The city’s smog crisis worsens every year, yet in the wake of these familiar struggles, its people manage to dress in new ways of ridiculous. From invoking religion to smuggling crackers like cocaine and tweaking number plates to escape the odd-even scheme, Dilliwalas have surpassed limits that really, only they can set for themselves.

And therein lies the problem, the obfuscating assumption that Delhi’s crisis is a sickness of the city and not its people. Had that self-defeating presumption been corrected years ago, we might have witnessed some change.

A summary of the Capital’s absurdist ways can be seen from an incident in Ghazipur where a person had his neighbour sent to jail for bursting firecrackers – but for reasons entirely different from what you might think. Apparently the arrested man had refused the complainant’s Diwali party invitation. The Delhi police on the other hand was busy chasing hoarders and sellers, not of contraband drugs, but of polluting firecrackers that have been banned by the High Court. Anyone who has lived in Delhi long enough will know that each of the seized fireworks, had they made their way to the market, would have been sold. All this, even as protests intensify over plans to level Aravalli Biodiversity Park to make way for a highway.

This is a case of the law having to wrestle the knife away from people hell-bent on stabbing their own lungs. And in the mind of its citizens, death – like good economic policy – evades broad consideration. Delhi’s people aren’t suicidal, but perhaps just too accustomed to living on the edge. That is just one of our many problems.

Delhi’s people aren’t suicidal, but perhaps just too accustomed to living on the edge. That is just one of our many problems.

To be sure, Delhi’s problem of air ought to have other, bigger targets – the polluting factory units that were moved out of city limits a few years ago, the crop residue that is burnt in the winter months that hangs like a pall of doom across north India. And to be even surer, it is far easier to be seen to take some measures – such as the cracker ban – than go after the bigger fish. But at this point, Dilliwalas, did you really need a cracker ban to stop yourselves from worsening the air quality of your city? Are you really the losers because the courts have had to decide that you need better air?  

Delhi gears up for winter like heroes in sci-fi films prepare to enter cities that have been struck by epidemics or plagues – with masks, but raring to go into battle. Except, there are no heroes here. There are of course those who’ll champion the ban on crackers, but won’t use public transport for work, not even the metro. There are those who would want the city’s dusty roads to be cleaned, but will litter at the first opportunity. The Capital is a city of contradictions, of oddly debilitating confidence in its people to do things that only harm their own hearts and heads.

It is now crucial to separate the city from its people. For as long as Delhi’s problems will be considered “Delhi’s” and not that of its inhabitants, people through their widely maniac theorising will continue to dust themselves off of responsibility or guilt by saying things like, “Delhi ka kuch nahi ho sakta.” No, dear friend, “tumhara kuch nahi ho sakta.”

But maybe there is hope – in China. The Chinese capital Beijing, for example, has vastly improved its situation by measures that have been both strict and prescient. Beijing set a quota for the number of cars that could be introduced to its roads every year, with almost half those slots reserved for vehicles that were fuel-efficient. The country has pushed systematically for a move away from coal energy as an attempt to reduce its emissions. The city has also invested heavily in public transport and on the odd occasion (odd because it is China and not India) that its citizens have failed to comply, they have been heavily fined. More importantly, though, the efforts have been twofold, by both the people and the law. The move to natural gas and public transport has largely been driven by people, while most have happily adapted to the new template. Like China’s capital, other mega cities like Paris and Zurich have adopted similar measures as well.

In Delhi’s case, however, there is as much a battle of wits as wills. The courts, the law can take all the measures it wants to, but whether it will restrict people from initiating and enthusiastically participating in their own slow murder, is anybody’s guess. It has almost become fashionable to ascribe to the Capital a certain deliriousness about morality. It’s time to acknowledge that Delhi isn’t poisonous – its people are.