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The Air That Took My Mother’s Breath Away

The Air That Took My Mother’s Breath Away

Featured image: Birds fly next to electricity pylons on a smoggy afternoon in Delhi, October 2019. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi.

At 63, my young, beautiful, energetic mother was diagnosed with carbon dioxide narcosis, also known as carbon dioxide poisoning, and put on a ventilator in the intensive care unit at Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital, Delhi. Four months ago, she passed away – due to the air pollution in Delhi.

She had retired in 2016 as a nurse at the same hospital where she worked diligently for 18 years. She thoroughly enjoyed her work and always considered it an act of Christlike service, treating patients with kindness, providing medical care and words of comfort when needed. She had just returned from Canada a month earlier in January, after our six-month visit at my sister’s place. In Canada, we had played with snow, drank warm apple cider at -20º C and attended outdoor Christmas events. Naturally, the quality of air in Canada was better suited for such alfresco activities.

However, immediately after our return, she developed shortness of breath. At the time, Delhi’s PM 2.5 levels were in the 300-400 range, in the ‘very poor’ category. The doctors told us that her lungs had become acclimated to the air in Canada, but which caused her grave difficulty in readjusting to Delhi’s air quality. Nonetheless, she always wore a mask, kept a pulse oximeter close by and remained mostly indoors. But one fateful night in February, she had a respiratory failure, and the rest is history.

Delhi is currently the most polluted capital city in the world. The number of deaths attributable to air pollution in the city is 10,000-30,000 every year. Despite this, the government has failed to declare a state of climate emergency and institute policy changes to improve air quality. When Arvind Kejriwal was elected as chief minister in 2013, there was some hope that he would bring down Delhi’s air pollution.

However, after being re-elected a third time in 2020, Kejriwal said there is a lack of scientific data on the contributing factors for Delhi’s air pollution crisis. This was surprising: several studies have reported that the main cause for Delhi’s wintertime smog is the burning of crop residue in neighbouring states. And Kejriwal’s inability to take affirmative action on this issue, but willingness to divert attention to other crises, indicates a lack of political will to follow up on scientists’ recommendations and thus control pollution.

Also read: 10 Reasons Why Climate Change Is a ‘Wicked’ Problem

This is partly also because urban residents have an apathetic attitude towards environmental concerns in the city, which fosters governmental resignation from pivotal issues such as air pollution. Delhi lacks a culture that cultivates an environmental consciousness, and as such – beyond the activities of some groups – hasn’t witnessed a public mobilisation for better air quality. But this is just what the city really needs: enhanced public participation and an ideological unity among the people to fight for clean air and better environmental standards. Activists also need coping mechanisms against government repression.

However, the little attention paid to such questions leads to a glaring omission in the public discourse, and potentially reinforces the status quo. We must judge our vision of Delhi not by short-sightedness – by the opportunities it opens for us – but by sightless contingencies, the human realities we continue to ignore and the consequences of such ignorance.

The nationwide lockdown did improve air quality in the national capital but it must not foster complacency on our part about what we need to do to make good air a permanent feature of our shared environment. The quantities of some criteria pollutants dropped during the lockdown, thanks to reduced industrial and transportation activities – and they are likely to climb back up once ‘normal’ life resumes.

The government has also okayed the expansion of commercial mining, ostensibly to improve prospects for economic growth following the lockdown’s impact on the economy, but this measure comes at the cost of our already beleaguered ecosystem and the concomitant air quality.

I am a climate scholar and I critique weak environmental policies all the time, but since my mother’s passing, I have begun to despise the environment – an unforgiving, reckless habitat that consumes lives and livelihoods. I despise governments because they seem to be greedy institutions seeking to maximise profits with zero empathy for human health and safety. I also blame civil society, especially fragile, discouraged activist outfits and their traditions that include anything but fortification. However, how can I theorise these dysfunctional systems that transcend the realm of theory, and breach the reality that now faces me? How do I contextualise the air that took my mother’s breath away and reorient my scholarly work around it?

Also read: Delhi’s Densification Is Bound to Leave Disastrous Ecological Footprints

We must sensitise ourselves to our contemporary realities. These reflections don’t emerge from an analyst’s perspective but a daughter who just lost her mother due to moral evils and corrupt systems that repeatedly fail to address Delhi’s greatest environmental catastrophe at the moment: its air. And if it remained unaddressed, Delhi will become uninhabitable, posing a direct threat to human lives within the next 80 years.

As the American philosopher Marshall Berman wrote in All That Is Solid Melts into Air (1982), we find ourselves in a modern environment “promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.”

Roomana Hukil is a PhD Candidate (ABD) at the department of political science, McMaster University, Canada. Her research interests include environmental politics, climate negotiations and policy, transnationalism and social justice activism.

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