(Published in Business Standard on November 15, 2014)
Those of us who live in Delhi should never have crawled out of the primordial swamp. That way we wouldn’t be up here on land, dying slowly from breathing the air.
Among the great levellers in life are the need to breathe, and the need to excrete as privately as possible. Here in Delhi, where men from every strata of income, education and sophistication whip out their penises and spray Eau D’Homme all over the streets in broad daylight, we may have gotten past the universal shame of pissing in public—but even those dudes need to keep breathing.
And breathing in Delhi is increasingly hazardous. How hazardous? Well, you know how bratty kids all over the world threaten to hold their breath when they don’t get what they want? In Delhi, bratty kids threaten to keep breathing.
Seriously, there is something awesome about our collective ability to pretend that the air quality in the capital does not qualify as a huge, massive, colossal, gigantic, titanic, gargantuan and also very very big health problem. On the one hand it gives me confidence that there is no problem so great that we cannot ignore it. On the other hand, perhaps it is being this brain dead that is affecting our ability to breathe? Either way, we are not screaming bloody murder about it. It seems inexplicable.
Then I look at my asthmatic mother, wheezing her way up and down the stairs, and I realise that some of the people worst affected by the poisoned air are too busy trying to keep breathing to even dream of wasting their precious breath on screaming bloody murder. She likes to save what she has for when she feels a lecture coming on. And then I remember my nieces as babies, their tiny faces hidden behind nebulizers, and I realise that some of the other people worst affected by the poisoned air don’t yet know how to spell the word ‘air’.
There was an article buried deep in the inside pages of a newspaper just the other day, about how vehicular pollution in Delhi is responsible for some proportion of congenital diseases and foetal malformation. Are the powers that be waiting for some sort of critical mass of two-headed babies to be born before they address the pollution problem? Forget the powers that be—are we, citizens and parents, waiting for said two-headed babies?
Two-headed babies are, in fact the problem: there aren’t enough of them. If there were, we might do more than tut-tut about the air (though the odds are high that we might also just take to bathing them in milk and worshipping them). Unfortunately, we’ve gone and internalised as normal the wildly high rates of respiratory distress, heart disease and allergic reaction occasioned by breathing the Delhi air. Ten million wheezing babies on nebulisers: union cabinet meeting on how to guard their Indian moral values. A hundred two-headed babies: union cabinet meeting on how to guard their Indian moral values, and parents rattled enough to start bathing them in milk and worshipping them.
In other words, these slow-release killers are never as sexy as immediate emergencies. When we think of health, our heroes are cardiothoracic surgeons, not nutritionists; when we think of fire, we admire firemen rather than building code writers.
Since the relatively healthy in Delhi go around blithely breathing for years without incident, we don’t register the fact that we are being irreversibly choked. But at some point, what is now a slow-release lifestyle disease will become an emergency. At that point, perhaps, some political or bureaucratic hero will emerge—but don’t hold your breath. Or, well, do.