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Breathing in poison

 | December 7, 2012

In Bangalore, in Kolkata, in Mumbai, the quantity of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide in the air has gone up many fold during the past 10 years or so.

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Recently at Panaji in Goa, a journalist, Pradip Biswas, in the course of his conversation with the renowned British movie critic, Derek Malcolm, quipped that Indians had little chance of living into their eighties.

Malcolm, who was for a long time the Guardian’s film critic, is 81 years old, and still remarkably agile in mind and body. He can still dash off a perfectly worded and argued review in just 10 minutes.

Seeing Malcolm’s bewildered expression, Biswas added that Indians could not hope to live long because of the pollution. And damn right he was.

After years of debate, discussion and empty rhetoric, we in India are still breathing not oxygen, but poison.

Twenty years ago, when I used to visit New Delhi during winter for covering the International Film Festival, I remember the capital being covered in a blanket of soot and smoke. Fumes from the bad gasoline that was supplied in New Delhi and elsewhere, and also the smoke from charcoal used to light “chulas” or country-made stoves vitiated the air.

In a recent report in The Economic Times, Shelly Singh says that along with the car key and smart phone, get set to carry a gas mask.

After getting better in the 1990s, the air in New Delhi and most cities in the country has been deteriorating alarmingly. Particulate matter levels in New Delhi have risen by 47 per cent between 2000 and 2011, while nitrogen dioxide had shot up by 57 per cent.

Particulate Matter 10, for instance, is a fifth the diameter of a human hair, and can easily get into our lungs to cause immense damage.

In Bangalore, in Kolkata, in Mumbai, the quantity of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide in the air has gone up many fold during the past 10 years or so.

Paradoxically, while Supreme Court directives took polluting factories away from cities, motor vehicles proved to be the bane. There has been a 100 per cent increase in the number of vehicles during the past five years.

Inadequate public transport system

The most important reasons for this are the large scale migration into bigger cities, and the woefully inadequate public transport systems.

Kolkata has just a single line of underground metro running for the past three decades. Bangalore has just opened a single line that runs for a few kilometres. Chennai is building its first metro. Mumbai has none. Delhi, of course, has a good network, but this seems still inadequate for the city that still largely relies on private transport.

Also, India’s uppity upper class feels that it cannot rub shoulders with the hoi-polloi in a metro train.

What a difference this is to the picture, say in Japan, where a partner, managing director and editor-in-chief of the respected English daily, The Japan Times, accompanied me one evening on a metro train. He had no qualms about travelling with me, and sitting next to me.

If there is one simple answer to India’s pollution problem, it lies in building a good, clean and efficient public transport network.

But with tens of car companies setting shop in India – reportedly offering huge kickbacks to the corrupt administration – mass public transportation seems like a mirage on a desert. Only that the desert we are talking about here is bursting with people.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at [email protected]. He is an FMT columnist.


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