Pedestrians walking near the India Gate monument amid heavy pollution in New Delhi Image Credit: AFP

We can’t breathe. When you step off a plane at Delhi airport, you can smell the poison as it enters your lungs and your bloodstream.

For several days now, the national capital and several parts of North India have come under a toxic cloud of smog. The air quality index has been off the charts, becoming so bad that doctors and officials have advised people not to leave their homes.

Schools, which just opened recently after a long COVID induced shutdown, have been closed again. India’s Supreme Court has even suggested a two-day lockdown and asked the Delhi government to respond, describing the situation as “very serious”.

Doctors have repeatedly told us how the poisonous particulate matter seeps into our lungs, how it can lead to heart attacks, cancer, strokes, how it affects the brains of our children and shortens the length of our lives.

A Lancet commission report in 2015 said there were 9 million premature deaths around the world stemming from pollution, and more than 2.5 million of these deaths were in India, the most in any single country.

Yet it is the same story year after year. It is a crying shame that a country which aspires to superpower status cannot get its act together and ensure clean air for its citizens. That too in the nation’s capital.

Every year we hear the same song, the same tired announcements of cosmetic measures like odd-even days for vehicular traffic and the latest tamasha: expensive smog towers which environmentalists say do pretty much nothing to clean the air. But our politicians have to be seen to be doing something.

What is stunning about Delhi’s air pollution crisis is the utter failure of both the local and the central governments in finding a solution. Actually, it isn’t stunning. Its just plain criminal. We know this toxic air is coming. Why does the government wake up after the crisis has set in?

There is something called a Graded Response Action plan or GRAP that’s supposed to kick in during this season. What is the point of this plan if we have come to severe levels for so many days now? Doesn’t this need an overhaul?

The problem isn’t confined to the winter. For most of the year Delhi’s air quality is poor, it just gets infinitely worse when winter sets in, thanks to lower temperatures, calm winds and farm fires from states like Haryana and Punjab.

It is incredible that no government has been able to figure out how to deal with farmers who burn stubble at this time each year and choke the rest of us. Experts have called for financial incentives to farmers among other steps to tackle this.

Reports say more than 30,000 farm fires were observed in the first 8 days of November according to data made available by Nasa. But that’s not the only source of pollution.

Studies say stubble burning accounts for about 30 per cent of Delhi’s air pollution. The rest comes from vehicles exhausts, construction dust, coal fired plants, industry and open waste burning.

Firecrackers on Diwali only add to the toxic haze and push up pollution levels. Unfortunately, much like everything else in India at the moment, a debate on firecrackers turns into a nasty polarising battle, where common sense is completely tossed aside.

In any other country, with pollution levels so dangerously high, a public health emergency would have been declared and drastic steps taken. Certainly that is what China has shown in dealing with smog in Beijing. But in India, no one cares.

Even most citizens who are outraged right now forget about the issue when winter passes. Those who can afford it, run away to the hills in winter to breathe better. But most people can’t do that. Things have come to such a pass that there is only one piece of advice I have: if you have the means and the opportunity, please pack your bags and leave Delhi forever. Save your kids, save your elderly parents and save yourselves. Because the government won’t.