On Friday the apex court banned the sale of firecrackers in Delhi and the national capital region. But the damage to the environment had already been done. The statistics in Gurgaon bear testimony to this. The air pollution in this IT hub went up by three times 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 realised that the sun had vanished. There was a thick layer of smog and near-zero visibility. The people of Delhi and the national capital region spent the next week breathless and coughing. The Meteorological Department claimed that air pollution had broken a 17-year-old record. It was also being said that Delhi was the most polluted capital in the world.
Even as the people of Delhi were 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 this blame-game. Leave aside taking any long-term steps, a few meetings were held and the recommendations emerging from these were presented as if the government were about to take some revolutionary step.
But they were just waiting for the speed of the wind to increase so that it takes the smog away with it.
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 a 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 demonetisation and then the ensuing political storm overshadowed this issue crucial to humanity. It wasn’t the case only in India. The Donald Trump versus 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 issue 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 it that can be implemented uniformly across poor and rich nations. Regulars at global 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’ misdemeanours?
Returning to India, a few ‘progressive-minded’ people were appealing before Diwali that fewer crackers should be burst this year. 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. Despite this, I felt relieved when I read that cracker sales had in Delhi had declined this year.
I couldn’t retain my enthusiasm for very long.
By the time it was 11 pm, 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. I was forced to watch two films on television back to back that night. It was 1.45 pm but the commotion in my residential 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 were using 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 factory of fire-crackers was set up in India in 1940. Only after this did they became part of Diwali celebrations.
These days, there is another issue apart that needs to be regulated. Statistics reveal that one out of seven children on the planet stay in areas that vulnerable to air pollution. Close to 6,00,000 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