Why I fled Delhi — a city I called home for 45 years

The tipping point reached in the winter of 2014. One morning, the smog was so dense and visibility so poor that during my morning walk I bumped into a tree I had known for years

opinion Updated: Dec 17, 2017 10:55 IST
air pollution,smog,Delhi air quality
Children cover their faces with masks due to dense smog, New Delhi, India, November 12, 2017 (Sonu Mehta/HT)

Although I have shifted from Delhi, its air continues to haunt me. The thought that so many old friends, including students I have taught, are breathing that toxic air upsets me. Their helplessness reminds me of how I felt up until a few months ago. I was in a position to make a choice.

The compulsion to live in a place with a serious health risk seems grossly unfair. I don’t understand how those holding high offices endure this injustice. Senior civil servants who live around India Gate surely feel the grit in the air. Have they too given up but can’t say so? Or, is it that they still don’t care?

The problem of air pollution is not new, but many of my generation felt it could be resolved before it turned into a chronic crisis. When the late Anil Agarwal, the founder of the Centre for Science and Environment, fought to switch over to CNG, it felt like a great victory and a turning point. Similarly, about a decade ago, when several schools persuaded their children to shun crackers, it seemed Delhi was going to recover. If crackers could go, why not construction dust, why not garbage burning, and so on? But the situation started to look dire after the 2010 Commonwealth Games (CWG).

There was something reckless about that event. It was organised as theatre, hiding Delhi’s reality: Its descent into traffic chaos and toxic air. Excessive construction activity marked the preparatory period. Thousands of trees were uprooted in the Delhi University campus. One third of its famous botanic garden was slashed to accommodate a rugby stadium — to be used for two days of rehearsal matches. The CWG reinforced the attitude among authorities that they could pull the wool over the public’s eye. Once the event was over, the city started to crumble.

Over the years that followed, alarming levels of pollution became normal. Garbage collection became somewhat more efficient without a parallel improvement in the common mode of its disposal — by burning.

The tipping point reached in the winter of 2014. One morning, the smog was so dense and visibility so poor that during my morning walk I bumped into a tree I had known for years. Throughout that winter, doctors advised people to avoid taking morning walks. On several mornings, I stepped out only to come back quickly. My eyes stung, and the air felt dead. It took a year to discover the modest miracle of an air purifier. From day one, they became my life-line, but I could hardly carry it to my classes.

I started to consider my students, their mental fatigue and restlessness. How could I blame them for lack of concentration? I felt convinced that they were victims of bad air. I certainly was. Yet, it was difficult to make a point like that to anyone. A discourse of pollution had already emerged. It allowed you to claim victimage if you had standard ailments like bronchitis, cough, or asthma. A general feeling of exhaustion and inability to sustain focus for long didn’t count.

My decision to leave Delhi meant wrenching myself out of places and things I had grown used to since 1971, when I first came to the city. Life then was starkly different, and not just because I was young. Riding a bicycle to work was not regarded as a sign of low status. Nor was taking a bus. The society of Delhi was neither as acquisitive nor extravagant as it became over the 1990s.

A city needs its people and administrators to identify with it. When the latter bulldozed the Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan, I became alienated for good. That demolition indicated an end of hope of sanity and recognition of the city’s crisis. As its citizen, I felt helpless. All I could now do was to flee.

The authorities deny that they are taking pollution lightly. Debaters on TV often claim that Delhi’s problems are not unique. Who are they trying to fool? Many eminent doctors have pointed out that a worrisome future awaits children growing up in Delhi today. Even that thought doesn’t inspire sustained radical action. The mountains of garbage on the outskirts smoulder day and night. Coming into Delhi for a visit prompts nostalgia, but these smoking mountains instantly set me right.

Krishna Kumar is former director, NCERT

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Dec 16, 2017 18:16 IST