Not Diwali, but chronic pollution is the problem

It is true that the season’s festivities have a hand in spiking pollution figures but the problem of air pollution is older and deeper than firecrackers being burst for a few days.

mumbai Updated: Nov 03, 2016 23:57 IST
Ayaz Memon
Ayaz Memon
Hindustan Times
(Pratik Chorge/HT)

Diwali celebrations in Mumbai as seen from Mandwa jetty, across the sea from Gateway of India, can be spectacularly appealing. It’s a sight and sound show with a difference, so to speak.

Loud crackers, ‘bombs’ etc are not particularly favoured locally. Once the ferry services cease and the holiday crowd disperses, a mesmerising silence descends, broken only by the seductive sound of waves lashing the jetty.Every now and then the dark, brooding sky is lit up by colourful rockets darting about, defining every so faintly the contours of South Mumbai’s magnificent skyline. With a little luck the Taj Mahal Hotel might just be visible.

I’ve been following this routine for some years, primarily to take our dogs away from their annual period of turmoil at this time, and in the process discovered a more pleasurable Diwali for myself too.The morning after, however, would usually be dismaying, what with stories of pollution levels in Mumbai hitting a new peak every year abounding. This time there was a pleasant surprise though.

All media reports suggest Mumbai had its least polluted Diwali in years. Sound pollution was low — except during ‘peak hours’ for bursting crackers — and the air in the city far cleaner during the few days before and after D-Day.

The contrast with Delhi is always a vicariously enjoyable pursuit for denizens of the city (and vice versa) in all aspects. This year showed up Mumbai very favourably as smog over the capital (still continuing) became an international headline.

Yet, there is little reason for Mumbai to gloat, as pollution levels still remain very high. In fact, the city is still considered in the ‘very poor’ category by agencies that study such matters.

The latest Pollution Index put out by Numbeo, a crowd-sourced agency, throws up data about Asian cities that should be a cause for concern.

No, Delhi is not the most polluted city in the continent. It ranks 13th, some way behind Amritsar (2), Faridabad (3), Kanpur (4), Ghaziabad (10) while Mumbai trails behind at number 21.

The alarming finding is that out of the top 100 most polluted cities in Asia, 45 are from India. (Here’s the link: Every major and emerging metro, even several tier-3 cities show up on this list, revealing the extent of the crisis.

This is not only because of Diwali of course. It is true that the season’s festivities have a hand in spiking pollution figures but the problem of air pollution is older and deeper than firecrackers being burst for a few days.

Air pollution in Mumbai, for instance, always hits its worst pocket after the monsoon. The weather may be hot but the lack of humidity and stillness means that all the particulate matter we, our vehicles, construction businesses and factories produce remains suspended around us. Over the years, in spite of the shift to CNG for some public vehicles, both vehicular and construction pollution has made the city’s air into a toxic cocktail that has forestalled any remedy because none has been aggressively sought.

In May this year, the World Health Organisation deemed the Mumbai as fifth most polluted megacity in the world, based on coarse particulate matter in the air. Of all Mumbai’s many star achievements, this is certainly not one to be proud of.

Other cities have their own particular reasons why the air and environment get so bad at this time of the year. It could be the change if weather, crop harvesting of whatever else. Diwali provides, if obliquely, the opportunity to focus on the peril of pollution – across India, not just Mumbai or Delhi -- otherwise obscured from the knowledge and sensibilities of the people.

Unfortunately, as has become standard practice in recent public discourse, a binary, hysterical debate has ensued in which religion and cultural practices have been sucked in, ignoring the real problem.

As Mumbai showed this year, creating awareness and education about the issue can help people make an intelligent choice without compromising on the delight that the festival of lights, so integral to Indian life, provides.

First Published: Nov 03, 2016 23:57 IST