India: smog alters consciousness

India: smog changes consciousness

In this part of the world, the materially poor like to warm themselves on plastic fires. Photo: gilbert kolonko

With a purchase premium of up to 700 euros for a new car, 26 million vehicles older than 11 years are to be taken off the road

Actually everything was in the indian delhi as always around this season. Plastic gauze was burned in the streets. On the fields of the surrounding province punjab the stubble fields were burned with rough fires. The religious festival of divali was celebrated with (too) many fireworks, and the cooler night temperatures caused the fine dust-laden air to settle over the metropolis of 17 million inhabitants – plus the usual exhaust fumes from 9 million motorized vehicles (including about 3 million cars).

But on friday suddenly closed 1700 government schools, then all construction sites. On saturday also a cricket match of the first indian league in delhi was cancelled, whereby a sport journalist friend laconically remarked that this was now really an alarming sign, since the players were only standing around anyway. Those in the capital who can afford it will travel to the nearby mountains around dharamsala or seek refuge elsewhere.

All this because thursday’s particulate matter readings were made public: coarser particles (pm 10) were reported at 522 micrograms per cubic meter as the daily average, and smaller particles (pm 2.5) at 348 mg. The who limits have been exceeded by a factor of 20 and 35. There were even highs in the morning of 887 mg. One learns quite fast the "protective devices" of your body: just one day after my arrival in delhi on thursday, my nasal harps were stuck together in black and i was spitting up brown chunks, a sign that my lung harps are still there.

India: smog alters consciousness

Those who can, are working sitting down. Photo: gilbert kolonko

However, the good news is that the government and the people are finally reacting. 400 kilometers to the west, in lahore, pakistan, the government is still leaving people in the fog, as it was in delhi a few years ago. But in the 17-million-inhabitant metropolis, the population last year already set an example against the old and elected the local anti-corruption party aap to power with an absolute majority.

It now wants to do more than just change people’s minds, but it’s not that simple. Although it banned the sale of diesel vehicles over 2000 cc immediately after the government took office, mercedes benz, which accounts for 25% of all cars sold in delhi, successfully challenged the ban. Metropolis officials also purchased 6 rough spacecraft to suck dust from the streets, but they did not work on delhi’s uneven streets. This meant that even the sprinkler systems, which use the sprayed water to bind the dust from the air so that it settles on the ground, were almost ineffective.

Delhi’s political leaders also asked their counterparts in the neighboring province of punjab to prevent the burning of harvested fields. But the "colleagues" did not want to antagonize the coarse farmers – elections will be held in punjab in 2017 – and turned a deaf ear. Already last winter in delhi they loved to drive only the vehicles with odd initial number on the license plate and on the other day the ones with even – but the officials were overstrained with the controls of the vehicles. The air filters placed in the streets of the metropolis were found to work only in closed spaces.

In the meantime, however, delhi’s middle class is stocking up on them. However, for the majority of the population, including the approximately 3 million slum dwellers, the air filters, which can cost up to $5,000, are prohibitively expensive. But the central government is not inactive either. With a purchase premium of up to 700 euros for a new car, they want to get 26 million vehicles off the road that are more than 11 years old – but even this still has to be approved in the world’s largest democracy.

A young call center worker i talk to in the waiting hall of the train station gives a hint that india doesn’t have forever. Although he is aware that just 10 years ago it would have been an impossibility for a worker from the lower classes without a university degree to earn 700 euros a month, he said to me: "i know that my country is progressing and i love india. But everything is going so slowly. I am saving my money to emigrate to canada or australia." he then pointed to the sky: "what father would want to raise his children in such an atmosphere??"