The black SUV braked suddenly, veered to the curb and came to a halt in front of the bank. Two masked men in dark clothing quickly got out and rushed into the bank. The driver, also wearing a mask, remained in the car with his engine running. The passersby didn’t seem to notice anything untoward. In a span of a few of minutes the two were out, stuffing money into their pockets as they jumped into the waiting car. As I watched, the driver pulled away, blending into the traffic.
If you thought I had just witnessed a bank robbery, you would be wrong.
I am in New Delhi, the capital city of India. A city that takes your breath away, literally!
The dense smog in Delhi will do that to you. Every sensible person here wears a mask — especially if their business takes them outdoors for any significant amount of time. The guys I saw at the bank were probably making a quick ATM stop while their friend parked illegally in front of the bank.
Smog level warnings are at “severe” levels and have remained there for a few days. The past week, Air Quality Index (AQI), a standard for measuring pollutants in the air, has hovered around the 400 mark on a chart that tops off at 500. For perspective, Downtown Toronto sits at around 42 and New York City comes in at 47.
You can check your city’s AQI here.
As someone who is always bullish on India, this is of concern to me.
I am with some extended family, from the United States, who are visiting India for the first time. The AQI warning that reads “May cause respiratory impact even on healthy people” is not comforting. When schools are ordered closed due to the pollutants in the air, you know there is a real problem. Many road accidents have been blamed on the poor visibility caused by the smog.
From what I can tell, there are no easy fixes.
Praying for rain looks to be the country’s short-term strategy.
And the Gods appear to be listening! As I write this, a spell of rain has helped improve the situation from “severe” to “poor.”
Smog in November is not new to Delhiites. It is the season when farmers in the adjoining agriculture-rich states burn their post-harvest stubbles to prepare their fields for the next sowing. This is a practice substantially on the wane in developed parts of the world.
Large scale burning of firecrackers — despite a Government ban — during Diwali, a festival celebrated in October, is another contributor to the problem. Throw in fumes from vehicle exhausts, industrial emissions, trash-burning, construction, and other such factors and you have a recipe for dangerous levels of smog in Delhi.
What is disconcerting is that it is a man-made disaster. Unlike forest fires, flash floods, and earthquakes, the smog in Delhi is preventable.
As finger pointing and recriminations fly, the state and central Governments are trying to implement new policies and enforce the ones that are already in place to contain the situation and prevent recurrences in the future.
The downside of democracy!
You cannot ram policies down people’s throats even when it is good for them.
Managing over a billion people in a democratic system has to come with its share of pain. As people look for resolution, they seem to forget that the Government does not have a magic wand.
It is obvious that no one side — people or the Government — can resolve the issue without cooperation from the other. People have to make conscious choices to have a realistic shot at improving the quality of the air their children breathe. Spending more money on farming techniques that eliminate crop-burning may not be feasible for all farmers without Government support and subsidies.
Celebrating festivals without — or fewer — fireworks and utilization of public transport may also have to be pushed with a carrot and stick approach that involves fines and tolls.
Meanwhile, some of the recent progress made by the country seems to have been overshadowed by the severity of the smog in Delhi.
Elimination of large bills in a demonetization move last year surprised even the rich and the powerful of the country and rendered worthless substantial amounts of unaccounted cash and counterfeit bills overnight. Similarly, the introduction of personal IDs for every citizen — a no-brainer in many developed countries — is seen as a mechanism to eliminate middlemen in Government transactions and to combat terrorism.
However, short term pain for long term gain is not a sentiment that the whole country shares. There are many detractors. Politicians and opposition groups with vested interests have jumped on the “what are you doing about the smog?” bandwagon.
Meanwhile, Delhiites go about their business taking the smog in their collective strides.
For now, God has stepped in with rain.
I am afraid to ask, “Whose God? Yours or mine?”