Breathing in fear

Breathing in fear

"Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city…fog in the eyes and throats…" This is not a description of Delhi smog but a literary account of pollution in London from Charles Dickens's novel Bleak House (1852).

However, it aptly captures what Delhi underwent last year, when a cloud of smog had engulfed the entire city for days after Diwali, and had caused severe respiratory problems for many. The toxic Delhi air was a reminder of the great smog of London that had killed thousands of people in 1952, forcing the British government to bring the landmark Clean Air Act of 1956, which rapidly improved air quality.

As per a recent report in the medical journal Lancet, pollution claimed a staggering nine million lives worldwide in 2015, and India had the dubious distinction of having the maximum number of deaths at 2.5 million. The situation is undoubtedly alarming and demands immediate remedy so as to enable the citizens of this country to breathe clean air.

Though the Supreme Court's ban on the sale of firecrackers in Delhi and NCR was long overdue, it finally came as a somewhat welcome initiative to curb the rising menace of air pollution. Despite the urgent need to purify the air of Delhi in particular, and various other metropolitan cities in general, many ardently defended the use of firecrackers on Diwali while linking it with Hinduism and tradition.

A best-selling author, in the name of defending Hindu rituals, disapproved of the SC's ban and urged others to 'respect traditions'. In a far-fetched analogy, the author, through a series of tweets, went on to argue for banning goat sacrifice during Muharram along the same lines, being conveniently oblivious to the context of air pollution. Such critique of the ban on firecrackers stems from a systematic misunderstanding and misreading of both Hinduism and tradition.

None of the ancient Hindu scriptures mandate the bursting of firecrackers. They simply could not have done so, as crackers are a modern invention. Historians have argued that gunpowder was invented by the Chinese in the 11th century and carried to Europe and India by Arabs. People supposedly started using gunpowder in warfare and crackers from the 15th century onwards. And hence bursting of firecrackers increasingly became an integral part of all sorts of celebrations, including Diwali and Chhath puja (celebrated six days after Diwali), and we eventually appropriated it as 'tradition'.

Moreover, what we call tradition is not a static entity but certain cultural practices that constantly evolve and reinvent themselves in each age. There is a story by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle about an old carpenter and his shiny knife that helps us understand the ever-changing nature of tradition. When a philosopher asked the carpenter how long he had possessed the shiny knife, the latter said, "Oh, it is an age-old ancestral knife. I have merely changed the blade a few times and the handle a few times in the last thirty years. But it is the same old knife."

Tradition is a blend of old and new, ancient and modern. It is similar to the knife, which constantly undergoes transformation and renews itself whereas some of us, like the old carpenter, mistakenly think of it as a stagnant category. Defence or discontinuation of certain cultural practices, therefore, should not be given a sectarian hue, and we must address the concerns of society at large by voluntarily abolishing rituals and traditions that have a deleterious effect on public health.

However, the contribution of crackers to pollution is only the tip of the iceberg - as the larger problems of stubble burning, vehicular and industrial emissions, dust produced at construction sites and the lack of political and bureaucratic will to enhance the forest cover from the current 24% to the required 33% of the total geographical area - are yet to be addressed.

Shun indifference

Unless the government drafts a new National Anti-Air Pollution bill with as much alacrity and sense of urgency as the British government had done in 1956 (Winston Churchill's initial apathy delayed the legislation), it would be difficult to counter the cataclysmic impact of noxious air on people. While doing so, it must renounce 'Churchillian indifference' to pollution by taking into confidence all the states and putting into place some stringent provisions across the nation against non-compliance.

People cannot afford to remain mute spectators, as any law without social acceptance is bound to fail. For how long will we continue to mourn the poor quality of air while travelling in chauffeur-driven cars, openly defying the cracker ban and cursing the inaction of the government? We, especially, the middle-class city-dwellers, it seems, have forgotten to walk, cycle, or perform civic duties and are merely fond of criticising civic bodies. After all, people in various European cities either cycle to office or use public transport.

Can we not collectively take a pledge to do the same to the best of our abilities, at least twice a week, to begin with? It is also equally true, on the flip side, that Europe, unlike us, has developed proper cycling tracks and efficient public transport, which have somewhat helped them reduce vehicular emissions.

Can the citizens of this country claim the right to breathe clean air, an extension of the fundamental right to life, enshrined in Article 21 of our Constitution? We must remember that protection and improvement of the natural environment has been enumerated as one of the 11 fundamental duties in Article 51A of the Constitution. We should not, therefore, think of merely claiming a right, without fulfilling our duties as citizens. Else, the day may not be far off when people will start using the metaphor of breathing for death and disease.

(The writer teaches English at Deen Dayal Upadhyaya College, University of Delhi)

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