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What next, after the #DelhiSmog?

This past weekend, I returned after a three week long international trip to the worst smog Delhi has faced in 17 years. Yes, it was bad. My nostrils felt the stench immediately and my eyes watered. My daughter wore a mask to go out and play. Non-stop media reports and social media feeds placed immense pressure on the government to act, forcing stop gap measures like shutting down schools, construction sites and power plants.

Three days later, the winds are blowing and the air is already clearing up. Believe it or not, the smog is beginning to fade from Delhi’s memory. New, more exciting stories will be out. This will soon be old news. Till the next time!

Mismatched! Short-term memory and long-term solutions

My friend Amit aptly calls the interest in smog “seasonal” in his succinct piece today. He also focuses on the need to address the problems  of air pollution with long-term measures. This is the dominant line of thinking in the community of urban professionals I interact with. It is not with glee, but with extreme sadness that we want to wag the finger and say “I told you,so!” to Delhi’s residents and policymakers. Because public imagination is, for the moment, captured by the problem of pollution, we see the opportunity to hammer home the harsh reality. And also offer, once again, the solutions that we have been talking about for years.

The truth is that there are no magic bullets. Combating pollution and ensuring air quality needs a multi-pronged and long-term approach. Because the source of pollution are so many, including automobile emissions, waste burning, construction dust, industry and cooking (see this excellent piece by Dr. Sarath Guttikunda for a deeper understanding), several strategies need to be deployed at the same time. Because cities are ever-expanding creatures in these times, the magnitude of these problems will also keep growing, so solutions will have to be planned for the present and in anticipation of the future. Most of the solutions likely to yield results involve difficult decisions on the part of the government, but also substantial changes in behaviour on part of citizens. This change can be triggered by alarm, nurtured by a sustained awareness campaign and sustained by incentives. For example, investments in public transport and good pavements need to be accompanied by measures to discourage private car usage, like higher parking charges or congestion pricing (Another piece by Dr. Sarath lists a set of solutions in this vein).

Professionals have been talking about these measures for years, but only sustained pressure from citizen groups can result in these kind of changes. To do so, we will have to transform our short-term memory to a real awareness of the problems at hand.

A matter of survival: Reducing consumption, community action, sustained pressure are small steps towards long-term change

This is hard to do, primarily because of the extremely confused (and shrill) discourse we have had around this issue. We’ve quibbled and played blame games about who caused the problem and we’ve pointed fingers at who should be accountable for it. In all of that, we have forgotten that year-round pollution levels in Delhi are high; so anything seasonal like fire crackers and stubble burning tips the balance and the situation spirals out of control.

Like many commentators have already pointed out, high levels of pollution should be a cause of long-term concern. The harsh impact of air pollution on human health, including premature births and deaths, is being recognized widely and especially in Africa and Asia, where the majority of urban growth is taking place (see recent report on African situation). It is not about apportioning blame, but about understanding the seriousness of the problem and finding solutions.

There is a lot we can do at an individual level. We can consume less so that we waste less and dispose waste in a responsible way; we can walk, cycle, car pool or use public transport wherever possible; we can prevent the burning of dry waste in our neighbourhood; we can bring down dust by planting more trees and bushes, using permeable surfaces for parking and driveways, and storing construction material properly. At a community level, we can do all of this and more! Garbage segregation and composting is an obvious example. So is discouraging of car use to walk to bus stops and local shops by creating walking infrastructure & community help groups to help children and elders cross roads etc. Efforts at a larger scale are also a great idea. Some of my friends have been running Facebook groups on air quality where information on problems and solutions are shared. All of these measures not only help us but also make it possible to influence the direction of government policy and public investment.

This is not a problem that is going away, folks! And it is not someone else’s problem either! It must mean something that the words ‘disaster’ and ‘resilience’ featured in nearly all of the conversations I had at the United Nations Habitat III conference I attended a few weeks ago. There is a tangible sense now that the significant economic benefits of urbanisation are coming to us at a terrible price and that humans are responsible for much of the damage. Reversing the course of climate change and protecting ourselves from disaster (including episodes like the Delhi Smog) is possible only if we all take responsibility. And make governments heed our concerns! It is a matter of survival.

It would be remiss of me to not thank my friends and family for fueling my thoughts and pointing me to several credible sources while writing this piece. Thank you, you know who you are!

‘A City Fit for Royals’ by Shweta Sinha #TheCityasMuse Special Mention

As an IT professional, Shweta Sinha has been to several places around the world. When what is seen is not enough, she loves conjuring up worlds through her writing. Her stories and articles have been published on Kinooze.com, a children’s news website, and in Woman’s Era. There’s more from her at http://shwetasheel.wordpress.com. An avid reader, Shweta believes books complete her world that she otherwise shares with her husband, two boys, parents and an aquarium full of colourful fishes.

Comment: Shweta’s intensely personal and emotional piece on Kathmandu delves deep into nostalgia, but leaves a mark by making a poignant statement about the ethos of her city.

A CITY FIT FOR ROYALS

Houses crumbling to dust, the air resounding with haunting cries, historic monuments turning to history – these images rocked the world only months ago. While they shook every heart, mine bled with an unfamiliar angst. For the city of Kathmandu had always been my paradise.

The snow-capped Himalayas, casting their protective shadows over the valley, added a mystical allure to the exquisitely carved wooden houses. Smiling faces ambled the narrow, winding paths, nattering in a language that made them sing. My earliest memories from the 70’s consist of scuttling up a creaking wooden staircase into the attic kitchen, drawn by an aroma of sautéed jeera dunk into freshly boiled pulses. Of huddling together at bedtime, listening to my grandfather describe his treks across the mountains to the valley. Tall tales littered with sky-high bears and walls running through the wilderness that slithered and morphed into hissing snakes. His month-long hike sounded much more thrilling than our journey on rickety buses scraping the curvaceous mountain roads.

Kathmandu was once a shoppers’ delight for all things foreign. Summer after summer I waited with unbridled eagerness to spot the latest Hot wheels model or buy a blonde-haired doll. Sometimes Nani would tag me along to the teeming bylanes of the old-town market. She would pause at shops displaying hordes of ‘potey’ in red, blue, green and a myriad other colours. Miniscule beads, strung together into brilliantly crafted necklaces. Nani would haggle in Nepali while I pretended to follow every word. At the end, the shopkeeper, often dressed in a red saree over a white and red cholo, conceded to sell at Nani’s quoted price. As she stuffed the selected necklaces into paper packets, the lady would flash me a grin and ask my Nani if I were her ‘chhori‘. Shy at the sudden attention, I would wrap my tiny self in the loose end of my grandmother’s saree.

The city gave me my first fizz of Coca Cola, a drink banned in India then. Eons before they became ingrained in the Delhi street food culture, spicy momos gained popularity in the Kathmandu eateries. The flavour of the tangy-sweet-spicy titaura, a local version of candy made from fruit, still tingles my taste buds. If you’ve ever tasted one, I’m sure you’re already drooling. If you’ve not, you’re missing something.

My grandparents’ house provided an unhindered view of the royal palace grounds. Often I would find myself in the balcony, gazing at the ten-foot high brick wall surrounding a thicket of trees that hid the Narayan Hiti Durbar from prying eyes, even as I dreamt of the life the imperial family led inside. But never did I envision the gory circumstances that tainted the dazzling white walls a dirty red.

Jokes about Nepali watchmen abound, shared with an iota of smug merriment. To me, however, Nepal remains the country of the Sherpa who stepped aside to let Hillary claim his name to fame. A country whose spirit no calamity dare suppress. Kathmandu – the city with the wooden house – will resurrect itself with unforgettable smiles.

Rewarded for trust: How my child surprised me and made me proud

Children are so incredibly resilient and we adults, parents included, underestimate them all the time. My kids never cease to surprise me.

Last night, Aadyaa started complaining of earache. Now that is bad news indeed, for it is an ailment that she has recurrently a few times a year and it is bad news! The earache is usually acute and takes a while to subside and means half a night of her howling in pain, while we scurry around trying to medicate, placate and allay the sinking feeling in our hearts. Over the past year she has had this problem, we have an arsenal of homeopathic, home remedies and mild allopathic medicines ready to combat it. For some reason, last night all the ammunition failed and Aadyaa and we were up most of the night in pain, hers physical and mine mental!

There was the added stress that she had her annual sports meet at school this morning. Something the kids look forward to and have been working really hard to prepare for. She would have been heartbroken if she had missed it and till midnight I was hoping the earache would oblige us and go away. Well, as you know, it didn’t. Surprisingly though, Aadyaa deviated from her pattern of howling through the night and was exceptionally tolerant of the pain. We read books, munched biscuits and chocos, chatted, sang songs and caught 15-minute shut eyes through the night, peppered with the various doses of medication we were trying out.

Eventually when she fell asleep past 5AM, we had decided that sports day happens every year and it wouldn’t be the end of the world if she misses it. On the other hand, she made me promise that I would take her if she woke up in time, even if it meant she simply sits in my lap and watches!

Morning came and we all got ready before we tried to wake Aadyaa up. Not only was she up and about, but she went on to complete all the activities that were planned at the sports meet, displaying her usual balance and poise at all types of physical challenge. No tantrums, no crankiness. Yes, I was pleasantly surprised.

Small things I observed today made me realize just how vital school, her routine, her friends and her teachers are to Aadyaa’s world. For instance, she demanded her teacher’s attention and sat in Mudita didi’s lap through the morning assembly. Once reassured by these minutes of comfort, she gave her best to the day’s proceedings.

I’m glad I decided to play along and let Aadyaa take the decisions this morning. I was rewarded for my trust and she gained another few notches of self-confidence. All in all, a good day!

Moments of reassurance and love from her teacher

Moments of reassurance and love from her teacher

The sheer joy of being in the moment

The sheer joy of being in the moment

On top of the world! Crossing the bamboo ladder with not an iota of hesitation!

On top of the world! Crossing the bamboo ladder with not an iota of hesitation!

So proud of you Aadyaa. Love you for what you are!

So proud of you Aadyaa. Love you for what you are!

 

 

 

Surjeet-Sarabjeet mix up: What must it be like spending a lifetime separated from loved ones? June 27, 2012

Surjeet or Sarabjeet, what’s in a name? On days when life hands you lemons and you barely glance at the news, it is hilarious to see that the hottest debate of the day was about two names that sound similar and belong to two very different people! What a storm this has raised and what a goof-up!

A few days ago, I had wondered what it would be like to not see your family for decades, to know you have children somewhere and be separated from them. There are days I have a morbid imagination. And the death of near and dear ones is a recurring thought (no idea why). Sometimes I project myself into that situation and see myself as resilient and strong, other times I watch myself pose a tough exterior while I smash myself into smithereens inside. So this time, I thought the separation thought through and decided it was a fate worse than losing someone to the certainty of death.

Well, I grew up hearing stories from my father of how things were when his father disappeared. He simply never returned home one evening. My dad was a baby and only made sense of this later. But it took a while for the family to figure out that my grandfather was murdered. The stress and the trauma (of waiting, realizing, experiencing widowhood and being a single parent to 4 boys) changed my grandmother’s personality forever, streaking her behavior with obsessiveness, guilt-ridden self-punishment and a certain type of stubbornness we have all learned to love and respect dearly.

I’ve known friends whose family members have simply walked out of the home and never returned, and the fate of the missing one was never ascertained in any definite, proven way. My family was at least lucky to get some closure on this disappearance.

My father spent the last few months of his life penning his autobiography, which was dedicated to his mother- Ayee, Ajjee to us grandkids. His complete admiration of her and dedication to her he attributed to her resilience and tolerance of a rapidly changing world around her, despite the extreme trauma that life meted out to her.

Not everyone comes out a winner, as she has. She continues to inspire us all today. Even so, I wouldn’t wish on anyone the trauma of someone who has to spend many years away from loved ones. Or of the loved ones, who spend years pining for the one who has left and not yet returned.

 

 

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