“We need to go to Gurugram for the weekend,” said my wife, and all I could say in a panic was, we will need face masks.
India’s capital New Delhi and the satellite cities around it have been in the news lately because
a deadly smog was sending hundreds to hospitals with breathing issues, making landmarks disappear and delaying or diverting flights from this important National Capital Region.
The toxic smog appears every year because farmers burn paddy crop stubble to prepare fields for the next wheat crop.
These fires in the fields of Punjab and Haryana states can be seen from outer space.
There is another way of dealing with the residue but it requires expensive machinery which the farmers cannot afford.
The pollution is also due to tonnes of fireworks let off during Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, and the toxic pollutants hang in the air, coupled with the smoke from coal-fired industries, construction work, and the rising number of vehicles, many that ply on the choked roads with diesel fuel.
But many politicians have bizarre theories as to why the smog occurs; one minister said it was actually poisonous gas released by India’s neighbours, which was not a comforting thing to say to people many of whom who cannot afford face masks, home air purifiers, or medical care.
The health minister, meanwhile, advised people to eat carrots as the veggie has vitamin A, potassium and antioxidants that can protect from the harmful effects of pollution.
The environment minister suggested that everyone start the day with music and a cheerful note, while another minister asked people to pray and perform ‘yajna’, but that ritual requires starting a fire.
Checking the weather and the Air Quality Index (AQI) at our destination, I was floored as it was incredibly touching above 800 at some places.
Just to give you an idea, the normal AQI range, according to World Health Organisation (WHO), is between 0 to 50.
The danger level is between 400 to 500, which means the toxic air will affect the whole population, not just children and seniors, and that tonnes of harmful particulates (thinner than the human hair) in the air will lodge in our lungs as we inhale.
The last time we were in Gurugram it was like the sci-fi classic movie Blade Runner, which was made in 1982, and where filmmakers imagined how Los Angeles would be like in 2019, and it was nasty and bleak, no sunlight and a never-ending downpour.
The one thing the filmmakers got wrong was the constant rain because Los Angeles (and California) is turning bone-dry with depletion of groundwater and there’s the constant danger of forest fires. Gurguram, like LA, is one place where mothers will never tell their children to go out and play and get some fresh air, instead of sitting at home and staring at a smartphone.
Meanwhile, Amazon said since I was a nice guy and had paid extra for Prime membership it would deliver the masks for free and on the morning of the day we were leaving.
The surgical masks we had in our medicine cabinet would not do, said experts. The mask should be CE certified and should be N99 — meaning, it can filter out the smallest particulates in the air and cuts out harmful chemicals through a five-layer filtration method through charcoal and cloth.
I remember many years ago hearing people joke that one day the free air we breath will be taxed. The future is here now. A home air-purifier sells for Rs9,000 (Dh464) and a pack of five disposable anti-pollution face masks cost Dh29.
Mahmood Saberi is a storyteller and blogger based in Bengaluru, India. Twitter: @mahmood_saberi.