India’s Delhi-only air pollution problem

I woke up this morning to a PTI report telling me Delhi’s air quality had fallen to ‘very poor’ on Deepavali, the Hindu ostensible festival of lights, with many people defying the Supreme Court’s direction to burst firecrackers only between 8 pm and 10 pm. This defiance is unsurprising: the Supreme Court doesn’t apply to Delhi because, and not even though, the response to the pollution was just Delhi-centric.

In fact, it’s probably only a problem because Delhi is having trouble breathing, despite the fact that the national capital is the eleventh-most polluted city in the world, behind eight other Indian ones.

The report also noted, “On Saturday, the Delhi government launched a four-day laser show to discourage residents from bursting firecrackers and celebrating Diwali with lights and music. During the show, laser lights were beamed in sync with patriotic songs and Ramayana narration.”

So the air pollution problem rang alarm bells and the government solved just that problem. Nothing else was a problem so it solved nothing else. The beams of light the Delhi government shot up into the sky would have caused light pollution, disturbing insects, birds and nocturnal creatures. The sound would no doubt have been loud, disturbing animals and people in the area. It’s a mystery why we don’t have familial, intimate celebrations.

There is a concept in environmental philosophy called the hyperobject: a dynamic super-entity that lots of people can measure and feel at the same time but not see or touch. Global warming is a famous hyperobject, described by certain attributes, including its prevalence and its shifting patterns. Delhi’s pollution has two hyperobjects. One is what the urban poor experiences – a beast that gets in the way of daily life, that you can’t wish away (let alone fight), and which is invisible to everyone else. The is the one in the news: stunted, inchoate and classist, it includes only air pollution because its effects have become unignorable, and sound and light don’t feature in it – nor does anything even a degree removed from the singular sources of smoke and fumes.

For example, someone (considered smart) recently said to me, “The city should collect trash better to avoid roadside garbage fires in winter.” Then what about the people who set those fires for warmth because they don’t have warm shelter for the night? “They will find another way.”

The Delhi-centrism is also visible with the ‘green firecrackers’ business. According to the CSIR National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), which developed the crackers, its scientists “developed new formulations for reduced emission light and sound emitting crackers”. But it turns out the reduction doesn’t apply to sound.

The ‘green’ crackers’ novel features include “matching performance in sound (100-120dBA) with commercial crackers”. A 100-120 dBA is debilitating. The non-crazy crackers clock about 60-80 dBA. (dB stands for decibels, a logarithmic measure of sound pressure change; the ‘A’ corresponds to the A-setting, a scale used to measure sounds according to human loudness.)

In 2014, during my neighbours’ spate of cracker-bursting, I “used an app to make 300 measurements over 5 minutes” from a distance of about 80 metres, and obtained the following readings:

Min: 41.51 dB(A)
Max: 83.88 dB(A)
Avg.: 66.41 dB(A)

The Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules 2000 limit noise in the daytime (6 am to 10 pm) to 55 dB(A), and the fine for breaking the rules was just Rs 100, or $1.5, before the Supreme Court stepped up taking cognisance of the air pollution during Deepavali. This is penalty is all the more laughable considering Delhi was ranked the world’s second-noisiest city in 2017. There’s only so much the Delhi police, including traffic police, can do, with the 15 noise meters they’ve been provided.

In February 2019, Romulus Whitaker, India’s ‘snake man’, expressed his anguish over a hotel next door to the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust blasting loud music that was “triggering aberrant behaviour” among the animals (to paraphrase the author). If animals don’t concern you: the 2014 Heinz Nixdorf Recall study found noise is a risk factor for atherosclerosis. Delhi’s residents also have the “maximum amount of hearing loss proportionate to their age”.

As Dr Deepak Natarajan, a Delhi-based cardiologist, wrote in 2015, “It is ironic that the people setting out to teach the world the salutatory effects of … quietness celebrate Yoga Day without a thought for the noise that we generate every day.”

Someone else tweeted yesterday, after purchasing some ‘green’ firecrackers, that science “as always” (or something similar) provided the solution. But science has no agency: like a car, people drive it. It doesn’t ask questions about where the driver wants to go or complain when he drives too rashly. And in the story of fixing Delhi’s air pollution, the government has driven the car like Salman Khan.