Delhi air pollution smog
People commute along a street amid smoggy conditions in New Delhi on December 2, 2021 Image Credit: AFP

A fortnight ago, when the air quality in Delhi was at its worst, I wrote about how severe a threat this was to national health and well-being. India’s Nation Capital Region (NCR), on its way to becoming the world’s most populous urban conglomeration, was also possibly its deadliest when it came to levels of atmospheric pollution.

As a leading lung specialist in Delhi put it, “a child born yesterday in Delhi would have smoked 40-50 cigarettes on the first day of his or her life.” This shocking statistic only underscores what we experience daily in the capital. Schools and colleges have been closed not on account of the coronavirus, but pollution.

But all is not lost. Most man-made violations and defilements of our environment are, fortunately, reversible. Mother Nature is, luckily for us, most compassionate. Gaea or planet earth, forbearing as she is, is also capable of renewal and restoration. What needs to be done, if one must come down to brass tacks, is quite simple as it is also self-evident.

Taking corrective measures

Before we try to rectify the damage or take corrective measures, we must immediately stop or radically mitigate ecological misconduct. We must, forthwith, stop misusing and destroying the earth, air, fire and water. Modern science agrees that everything is made up of molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles, even if it no longer upholds the notion of the five elements.

In other words, both the world we live in and we ourselves are made of the same substance with different permutations and combinations. It follows, therefore, that whatever we do to our environment, we are also doing to ourselves. We are not apart from our habitat and surroundings, whether immediate, intermediate, of distant.

We cannot very well contaminate the soil, poison the air, dirty the waters, and abuse fire in an irresponsible and destructive manner, hoping that we will, somehow, be able to save ourselves from the consequences.

Applying this basic principle to the problem of pollution in Delhi, we must stop at our earliest all those activities and patterns of behaviour which are damaging our environment, especially the air that we breathe. Some twenty-nine causes of air pollution in Delhi have been clearly identified by experts.

These include vehicular pollution, biomass and stubble burning, coal and thermal fired power plants, polluting industries, construction work, and dust in the soil which rises and combines with moisture particles in the air.

The last of these major causes is beyond us, at least in an immediate sense. So is the wind, which blows the pollution away or allows it to stagnate over the capital when it is still. But even when it comes to the dust, we must take the blame for soil erosion, deforestation, and desertification. These causes are in our hands, therefore rectifiable in the longer, if not shorter run.

Reversing desertification?

What prevents us from planting trees, controlling grazing, reducing greenhouse emissions, and reversing desertification? This is even more obvious when it comes to other factors such as vehicular pollution and biomass burning identified earlier.

We are the cause as also the cure. It is up to us to make the changes needed to save ourselves and the future generations, who also have a right over this planet, as do other non-human species.

The world is going green in a big way, reducing its dependence and overuse of non-renewable fossil fuels. Green is already 'in' in India. Delhi is making a big push for electric vehicles. The Delhi government offered a substantial subsidy for the first 1000 electric cars.

Though the subsidy has been discontinued, the trend of switching from petrol and diesel to electric is gaining ground. This morning, I rode in a quiet and comfortable electric car when I booked a taxi ride. It was manufactured in India by Tata Motors. The market is expanding; the middle class is waking up to the need to go green.

Similarly, we must move from coal and thermal to cleaner electricity in the capital. Solar is underexploited even though every Delhi home is capable of solarising itself. Barring two or three winter months, sunshine is ample throughout the year. Solar is, literally, a blazing opportunity.

In addition, nuclear power, which the former president of India, A.P.J. Kalam recommended, is also an underutilised option. Despite disasters such as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, nuclear power plants the world over are considered safe and clean if properly built and maintained.

I have already covered stubble burning in previous columns. The political will is lacking to incentivise farmers from avoiding this extremely hazardous, polluting, and economically unattractive practice. The tried and tested solutions proposed have not, unfortunately, been implemented.

They certainly can and must be in the future. Similarly, polluting industries, already disallowed in the NCR, can shifted farther away or transform themselves altogether. Neglected and stray cattle, excessive grazing, construction activity, and other sources of environmental damage can also be regulated and controlled.

Many European cities, including London, were highly polluted till just a hundred years ago. Even the Thames was toxic, with effluents and sewage dumped into it.

It is said that modern plumbing and sanitation were invented in Chicago after Lake Michigan became so filthy with human and other waste that it was impossible to take a walk on Lake Shore drive, let alone live on the Lake front. The stench and pollution were so noxious that they drove the rich away from their lavish mansions.

Innumerable such examples from the past, plus our experience during the COVID-19 pandemic have proven the power of nature to heal itself if only we allow it. What is required in an integrated effort and vision. But when the left hand does not know and undoes what the right hand is doing, can we have meaningful action?

That is the human predicament today. We have the means, the knowledge, but lack the will to change. But even that will arise with the awakening of intelligence and the consciousness to safeguard our planet and save ourselves.