pollution

Of air and lies

November 2011

The invisible visible air of New Delhi

How do you know your plane has started descent towards The New Delhi International Airport? When you begin to smell car exhaust inside the plane’s cockpit. Inside the terminal the smell persists and as you step outside, an acrid, sour, burning smoke assails your eyes and nose. On the way to the guest house you keep the taxi windows closed and try to breathe into your hankie to protect yourself from the nauseating effects of the blue cloud through which your taxi is moving.

At the guest-house you are welcomed by the charming, helpful and efficient hostess who yet manages to surprise you with an oddity: “What’s with the air?” you ask her (meaning: “Has something happened? Was there an explosion? A fire downtown?”) and thinking that, surely, the sheer scale of the disaster would have been first page news. But it hasn’t been: the hostess is nonplussed. “The air? Oh, in the winter it always gets foggy here, and then the dust blows in from the desert.” When you tell her that you have spent several winters in Delhi in the past and that the blue color of the air outside, its acrid smell of combustion, and the huge dust particles that palpably bounce off your face are like nothing you have ever seen before, she is surprised.

You then realize that your hostess is somewhat in the old line of pucca (“proper”) ladies and lives in a kind of purdah (“seclusion”), hardly ever going outside; and that remaining all days indoors has protected her in part from the worst of the pollution outside. Plus, the change in the quality of air must have been to some extent gradual, and therefore people living in Delhi without interruption may have been less aware of it. Still, there must be another cognitive mechanism at work here: the difference between Delhi air in November 2011 and November 2006, the time of my last visit, is so stark that no one with any sense can possibly have failed to notice it – unless they do not want to. And the truth is that most Delhites are trapped in the city and have nowhere to flee to; all they can do is pretend that things aren’t really as bad as they are and hope it will pass.

It will not. In the last decade, the city has moved most public transport to greener liquified natural gas and built a metro to try to ease the traffic congestion; yet the rise in motor vehicles has continued unabated, turning Delhi roads into one huge snarling traffic jam; and the construction of a whole new city of Gurgaon, just south of Delhi, though it has sucked out some old Delhites, has done nothing to abate the relentless population growth as more people move in from everywhere to take advantage of Delhi’s higher wages. Delhi air, never especially good, is far worse today than it was ten or even five years ago and for some, like myself, is simply unbearable.

Although statistics are not easy to come by – government’s annual surveys of Delhi air quality have not been published since 2009 (having been suppressed, some say, for the sake of not scaring off the Commonwealth Games in 2010) – reports circulate that two in five Delhites suffer from respiratory ailments. Certainly all of the city’s professional drivers hack and retch; the pollution has performed a public health miracle: unable to breathe, most seem to have quit smoking.

By miracle of evolution, we’re each a little different, and some of us are better equipped to handle the pollution: I find one of my fellow guests at the guesthouse – a North European – is actually sunning himself on the open-air terrace the next morning. Yet, even he’s not blind: yeah, he admits, the air is bad – better taken in through a cigarette filter, he quips – but at least it is better than last time I came through, a week ago. “Now, that really was bad.” I shudder and thank God I was not in Delhi a week ago; but do recall reading Delhi’s weather forecast at that time: “dry, it said, high 30 degrees centigrade, smokey”. Even Yahoo Weather noticed something was up with the air.

Originally, I had booked my Delhi room for two weeks: the plan was to spend part of the season in the city to catch as much classical music and dance as I could – in quickly “modernizing” India her classical performing arts are progressively more difficult to see; but after just three days, during which I did manage to catch one very good vocal concert (well attended but by an audience of whom none – except myself – was less than fifty), I realized I would have to leave Delhi if I wanted to live: I was choking on the air, feeling physically sick. A friend offered his house in the hills and a spare servant. “Go up there, he said, the air is good, the views are astounding, the walks invigorating.” I had missed the hills almost as much as I had missed India’s classical arts, so instead of rescheduling my flight and advancing my departure from India, I headed for the hills. Ten days is a short time for a Himalayan trip – it takes so long to get there – but that seemed a better idea than to leave India defeated, after mere three days, probably never to come back.

Two days later, about seven in the morning my car came into the full view of the Dhauladar Range. It looked, as always, magnificent; but looking down a bit, around the mountains’ midriff, I suddenly spotted clearly against her snow… clouds of brown smoke meandering in the upper air. Smog!

Around noon, the host took me up to see a property he’s contemplating buying (in order to escape Delhi air). He had selected a beautiful site: within easy access from the State Highway, yet screened from her noise by a low, but steep hill, it sits across the top of a mild hillock, with views in all directions: the Himalayas in the back, the plains in front. On a good day, he says, you can see all the way to Chandigarh; I follow his gesture but all I can make out is milky-white haze of sunlight scattered in the fine dust suspended in the air. “A bit of a fog today”, says my friend, though the temperature is in mid 20s, it has not rained in three months and the air is bone dry; “but look at the mountains, aren’t they magnificent?” They are; though a bit hard to see, veiled as they now are by a purplish-brownish haze. Suddenly I remember: The Asian Brown Cloud. I had never seen it before: and here it was, visible from ground level, with the naked eye.

My friend does not notice. “And the air, he says, ah, the air, isn’t it wonderful? That’s why I want to move here!” Actually, the air is not wonderful. It does not have the acrid smell of smoke which it has in Delhi, but it has none of the bracing freshness of mountain air which I remember from previous visits. I now recognize the phenomenon: I have seen it before.

Pattern recognition

I have of course seen it before – in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which, when I first came to live there in 2001, had mostly manageable air, little traffic, and beautiful views of Doi Suthep, a mountain which towers above it. When I arrived there, the city had a small expatriate population; over the next decade agreeable climate, low prices, favorable tax treatment and a good standard of living have caused the expatriate population to rapidly expand. By 2006 major international magazines declared Chiang Mai to be one of the best places to live in the world, throwing expatriate immigration into overdrive. Ironically, the 2006 positive publicity for the city, and what seemed like a quantum jump in new expat arrivals, coincided with the city’s first environmental disaster. Pro-growth policies of the government of Thaksin Sinawatra in part aimed at decongesting the country’s capital, Bangkok, have caused the city’s population to explode from 250,000 in 2000 to more than 2 million in 2011. Policies designed to capture car assembly business have expanded the number of cars on Thai roads even faster. As has been the case with Delhi, infrastructure development did not keep pace. In February 2006 Chiang Mai experienced its first smokey weather.

Both Chiang Mai and North India lie in the subtropical monsoon zone, at the foot of the Himalayas. The monsoon climate means between four and six months of daily rain which washes the air somewhat and six (or more) months of rainless weather, when dust, once kicked up into the air, does not get washed out from the atmosphere and stays airborn indefinitely – until the rains break again. The solid wall of mountains to the north means that the prevailing Southwest winds concentrate air pollution in the foothills – they effectively sweep garbage from the whole plain south of it and dump it overhead.

I first noticed that something was amiss with Chiang Mai air in December 2006, from my motorcycle, on one of my usual trips into the surrounding hills: a stretch of the road which runs along the top of a ridge used to afford wonderful views over successive mountain ranges fading into the distance towards Burms, each bluer and fainter than the one before. But riding along the same road in now I realized suddenly that one simply could not see the mountains: the view had completely disappeared into a kind of milky haze. Unlike my Delhi friend, I realized immediately that the haze was… no mist.

By late January, Doi Suthep – 1600 m mountain at the edge of the city – traffic-willing the top of the mountain is only 20 minutes away – has disappeared from view; by early February, Chiang Mai experienced its first “blue days” – blue clouds of exhaust hanging over its streets, an acrid burning stink of exhaust, palpable dust in the air, brushing one’s face as one rode through the streets.

Traditionally, the tourist season begins in Chiang Mai with the onset of the dry weather, sometime in late October; this is also when most new expatriate immigrants arrive. In 2006, when the first Blue Days arrived, the largest contingent yet has just bought their properties or signed their leases; people were just settling into their furniture when the pollution struck.

Their reaction to the disaster was much like that of my Delhi hostess: they chose not to notice. They had simply invested too much in their move to Thailand to allow themselves to realize that they have made a mistake.  With time, the expats began to complain about the air (though usually pretending that there are only a couple bad weeks in the winter).  Finally, this year (2012) the penny began to drop (see this discussion) though not before the Thai government began to wonder in public whether it should just evacuate the entire population from the North of the country. And the expats are still blaming it on  Thais burning rice-fields in the winter.  Yet, the truth is that Thais have been burning rice fields for about 700 years, but the smog reached catastrophic proportions only now — a clear sign that something else is at fault.  What?  The Asian Brown Cloud emanating out of India and China. Last year there were reports of Chinese pollution causing smog in Western Japan.  This year — in Hawaii.

How bad is it?  Just look at the photos of Kangra Fort, in Kanga Valley, 550 km north of New Delhi.  What you are seeing is not mist. It is the Brown Cloud visible (and smellable) at ground level.

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