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Even a decade ago, winter in Delhi used to be quite different. Once the Diwali festivities were over, Sunday editions of newspapers would publish articles talking about the nip in the air, on ways of enjoying the winter – the picnic spots to be explored, trips to the zoo garden with the children, and some reminiscences of Delhi winter of days gone by.

Winter in Delhi also meant the appearance of the ubiquitous mungfaliwallah by the roadside.  A small earthen pot of burning charcoal would keep his pile warm.  Warm peanuts were a necessary accompaniment of a post lunch stroll on the India Gate lawns.  The delicious nuts were all the more enjoyable with just a touch of kala namak supplied by the vendor in the smallest possible pack.

For the common folk nothing warmed up the evenings more than an omelet or a couple of boiled eggs, washed down with a cup of steaming chai. Scores of makeshift corner shops would spring up only in the winter months to serve such delicacies.   Temporary stalls would also dish out mouth-watering fish tikkas and other fish delicacies for the benefit of those who sought warmth of a different kind.  Fish, by the way, is a winter delicacy for most Delhites.

Thick fog, bringing down visibility to a few feet, was common in Delhi during the winter. We would enjoy it, rather than be scared of it. People would go about their usual business through it. Flights and trains would be delayed, and some accidents might occur; but life won’t come to a standstill.  When the sun came out, the chill would be more biting, but enjoyable all the same. A stock winter photograph for all newspapers would be that of a roadside bonfire with people warming their frozen limbs as the mercury took yet another plunge.

All that is history. This time around, no one is talking about the picnics, the zoo garden, a trip to nearby Sultanpur to watch the migratory birds, or even about the sheer pleasure of sipping hot morning tea, with one’s back to the sun. It’s all changed. It’s a bleak winter that seems to be ahead of us in Delhi. The foul-smelling, lungs-choking smog that enveloped the capital for the past several days has, as they say, scared the hell out of the Delhites.

With no immediate or distant respite in sight, worried citizens have taken to covering their nose with masks whenever they venture out. It is scary to see streams of people – old and young, office goers and school children – wearing nasal coverings of different colours and sizes.  An outsider would think the city was struck by some infernal plague. The flip side is that the mask-makers and their outlets are making some smart business, as the item is now an almost indispensable part of our normal attire.

The urge to safeguard ourselves from the ill effects of inhaling this foul air has actually united the nation like nothing else in recent times. A friend sent me a picture of a Muslim woman in her hijab and a Hindu girl with her dupatta all around her face, with the title “separated by religion, united by pollution”!

Pollution is also a great leveller. Unlike most other issues related to our tattering public infrastructure this one is totally egalitarian in its outreach. The richest and the poorest of us have no option but to breathe the same filthy air sometime or the other – however much you invest in air purifiers and other such gadgets at home or in your vehicles.

The new adornment that we are now compelled to display reminds me of a high dignitary who was once medically advised to put on a collar on his neck as part of treatment for spondylosis. As we entered into the elevator of the hospital where he had the thing fitted, he asked me how he looked, and burst into a hearty laugh as I said that the ‘new ornament’ fitted him well, but wished that he won’t have to suffer it for long!

In the same way, I earnestly hope – may be without much basis – that we won’t have to suffer these masks for long and would soon be able to breathe without the obnoxious barriers. Going by the attitude of the authorities, however, this may remain a distant dream. The concerned governments continue to mull various measures ranging from naive to fantastic. The courts and tribunals are passing “orders” as if to justify their existence. None in the authority seems to be in any hurry to implement them. The farmers of neighbouring states – having no other practical option – continue to burn the hay on their fields.

Scientists may, after all, find the ideal solution that has eluded us so far, and the huge amount of straw that remains on the fields after each harvest will be put to some use other than tormenting us every year.  But given our new-found penchant for resorting to ‘traditional means’ rather than using modern science in solving such problems, we may give a cold shoulder to science and the scientists.

Doubts about our sincerity arise when, while parts of the flood plains of the Jamuna are severely damaged by illegal constructions and by activities of religious and quasi-religious organisations, the ‘protectors’ either turn into mute spectators or actively connive with the polluters in their mischief.

In the same manner, when even little children understood the merits of banning fire-crackers in Delhi on Diwali, some of us, grownups, defended the practice as we felt that it was our ‘tradition’.  Some senior politicians even criticised the court-imposed ban, and opined that it was an “assault only on the Hindu religion”. It was an issue that affected all of us, and medical scientists kept on telling us how bad it was for our health, but we refused to accept their advice. All in the name of tradition!

Under such circumstances, perhaps taking the cue from Bollywood potboilers, we may have to invoke ‘divine grace’ as the last resort to deliver Delhi – the Indra Prastha of yore – from this demon called air pollution. Of course, it is mostly of our own creation. But God is all merciful, and it is believed that we, the filthy, ungrateful polluters are His best creation. He may, therefore, save us yet again by some miracle! Till then we can blame it all on our collective bad karma, and carry on with sullying the air, water and whatever else we still have to plunder.