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Higher Education Under Attack From 10 Janpath

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IIT Delhi Higher Education in India

IIT Delhi, photo by flickr/ramesh_lalwani

While opinions vary on the performance of the first Indian governments in different sectors, higher education is a sector where India’s first steps usually evoke a positive response across the board. One can clearly see the success of secular advanced education that has paid dividends in India in a strong contrast to the other countries of the Indian subcontinent where either higher education was not given enough emphasis or was not secular in its character. Do not get me wrong, higher education in India has clearly not been an all-sunshine story, as India is far from its true potential but what I am trying to emphasize is that it is not a complete failure yet. You will get to see that ‘as yet’ is the operational word, as we are soon heading down the lane of Pakistan and Afghanistan, courtesy of the dirty politics of New Delhi.

Even though initial seeds of education were sowed with a foresight of modern secular thinking, Indian academia has failed to truly blossom. The reasons for this are manifold. We certainly need to explore all the reasons for the Indian failure to launch but right now the call of the hour is to protect the barely-alive academia from the ongoing onslaught of the myopic, vindictive and dictatorial UPA regime that is hell bent on destroying secular character of our advanced education system. When we get beyond fending the attacks from Kapil Sibbal and other cronies of 10 Janpath, then we must ask despite having one of the highest density of researchers and research settings in many sectors, why India frequently fails to innovate.

If we want to lift the standing of Indian education, then we need a cold blooded, comprehensive evaluation of the rotten cesspool of shit that Indian research set up of science and humanities alike, is quickly degenerating into. Instead of a lengthy voluminous and systematic evaluation of all the facets, in this article, I will present few case studies of attack on the secular character of higher education to pique your interest and foment direct action. Hopefully once you see the preventable rot, we will together be part of this battle with 10 Janpath and the puppet prime minister to improve education and research that can enable India to better deal with economic, social, medical and technical problems and most importantly evolve an intellectual culture that cannot be measured in terms of any price tag.

Indian policy makers under Nehru paved the way for a secular scientific higher education by establishing central and state universities, technical colleges and research institutions and attracting exceptional talent to run what used to be somewhat autonomous academia. Here I am focusing on 10 Janpath attacks on central universities alone instead of research institutions and technical colleges. Central universities educate more students and employ more researchers than the research institutions and technical colleges. These central universities are now facing a threat to their secular and modern character due to opportunistic politics and rise of religious fundamentalism.

Let us take the example of the University of Delhi, one of the largest of the central government universities that once used to be projected as a pride of India. It is now suffering from the same structure that initially served it well. The University is structured such that power is in the hands of few people who are politically appointed, instead of entirely merit-based autonomous council that is outside the influence of politicians. The University of Delhi has a Visitor who in theory has the ultimate power. This Visitor is the President of India. Then comes the Chancellor, who is the Vice President of India. The president of India on the advice (but in reality on the dictates) of the office of the Prime minister and the ministry of Human Resource Development appoints the Vice-Chancellor. The Vice Chancellor (VC) is in effect the head of the University. The VC can act like the dictator of the University, if he or she wants to, with obviously no reporting to the constitutional namesake head of India – the President. The VC appoints his team that plays a role in deciding the allocation of resources, approval of course work, appointment of college principals, teachers and eventually all policy matters. Although certain academic bodies involved in decision-making, like the executive and academic council have some elected members, usually no member gets elected without a political affiliation and backing.

This structure is in a strong contrast to the free merit-based truly autonomous academia in the developed parts of the world. The reason this structure worked to some extent in the first few decades after independence is that educated ruling class understood that academia should be run mostly on merit if the nation has to prosper. Unfortunately, the structure that was evolved depended on the wisdom of the Prime Minister but not a structure that was free from political intervention. This structure although constitutionally has some balances and checks in the form of some elected members in the administrative bodies and vibrant trade unions but to overcome this menace of democracy, Kapil Sibbal’s men have decided not to call any meetings of these bodies and rule by decrees. With Sibbal’s blessing, these men have forced academics to knock the doors of court on every matter if they do not like their dictatorial and inane decisions.

We all know of the always honest, political intervention free and super-expedient Indian judiciary. You judge what the outcome of such policy is going to be. Vice Chancellor at times has delayed calling due meetings of these administrative bodies for over a year on many vital decisions. The situation is so bad that even if an elected member in these bodies is a card holding Congressi, given his or her answerability to the faculty, even that member to maintain credibility, ends up opposing the Vice Chancellor. From students point of view one needs to look at directly impacts courses and degrees and what influences the quality and job satisfaction of the educators. One should wonder the wisdom of haphazardly changing the curriculum, introducing semester system without understanding logistics, pros and cons, whimsical twists to examination patterns, attendance policies that destroy precious years of young students and alter their career paths midway. We should systematically explore the various criminal actions of VC, various deans and heads of departments against educators, like blocking their promotion, holding back pension money and encouraging harassment of dissidents to score political points. In any advanced country with a rule of law, this kind dictatorial and incompetent conduct would get the criminals, not just the cronies but central government ministers and the ultimate puppet masters behind bars for decades. Only in countries where people with fake degrees and false claims of ties can set education agenda to Harvard and Cambridge that the business goes on as usual despite the ongoing rape of education and motherland in general.

I would like to remind you that the decision-making bodies like academic and executive council are infested with non-elected members appointed by dictates of 10 Janpath and those elected are almost always affiliated with political alliances like the UPA, NDA or the left groups. The party in power at the centre with all its economic muscle and influence favours the election of its sympathetic candidates to these bodies. This is just an insult to the injury, given that there should be no role of one’s personal political leanings in academia, leave alone using it as a ground for dirty political games. Given the direct influence of the Vice chancellor in the appointment of college faculty through his appointed members in the interview panels and indirect influence through college principals, the system is designed such that rarely can a new teacher unfavourable to 10 Janpath be offered a position, whatever be their merit.

Even though the system is rigged from the start, still at rare instances, exceedingly good merit prevails and sadly, for Sibbal, time travel has yet not been invented to remove the old academically meritorious and honest crop. The way this academically honest section of faculty has been attacked is by exemplary punishments ranging from everyday discrimination to blocking promotions, derecognizing existing promotions, blocking salaries and pension money. Instead of directly hearing grievances for even most serious matters, the Vice Chancellor appoints someone on his behalf for representation. This representation is not acknowledged in writing and minutes of meetings are never provided to the complainant to evade any legal action. Though such attacks have been on people with saffron background too, these attacks have been more focused on people with secular credentials, as these people would not let Sibbal use academia as place for communal electoral politics. Politicians are now using vote bank politics of appeasing fundamentalist demands of different communities and keeping Indian society divided from the stage of once sacrosanct academic settings. A recent look at sub judice cases on Indian academic giants will open eyes of anyone wanting to see the carnage by the bulldogs of 10 Janpath to enforce their corrupt dictatorial agenda. I would clarify that my refrain is not in any way to honour the farcical judicial system but I do not want the victims of Sibbal to face additional pressure. After years of research in US, I spent one year (2011) in India to explore the current scientific and socioeconomic landscape of my home country and witnessed carnage of Sibbal and corruption of academia up close. While I am keeping detailed account of this experience for later, I would briefly like to point to the fact that corruption of academic culture enables significant portion of research to be plagiarized in India and original research to be below par – reminding me of a Samuel Johnson witticism “Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.” This open politicization of education enables funding grants for non-existing research, denial of positions and funding to deserving candidates, existence of redundant institutions with zero productivity, harassment of researchers, violations of basic ethical codes of conduct, including the use of research facilities and funds for personal benefits, open solicitations in a supposedly blind peer review system.

If one is looking for obvious examples of this corruption, one can see a blatant hiring scam in the recruitment of several new teachers in some of the new colleges of the Delhi University. In a central university, everyone is supposed to be paid by the University Grant Commission (UGC); now many teacher appointments within the University of Delhi are illegally paid from the chauffeurs of the state of Delhi. This constitutional breach of pay check coming from state budget for a central university in its most optimistic scenario reeks of lack of any planning by the incompetent men and at its worst and more likely scenario, a tool to change demographic to less competent but more sympathetic to 10 Janpath. A simple look at the recent appointments of college Principals can show you the infestation of Indian academia by Congress honchos. For some merely accidental reasons (pun intended), an overwhelming number of recent College Principal appointments seem to be of young Punjabi female teachers who once used to teach science and are strongly affiliated with Yuvraj Rahul’s gang.

I have nothing against young age, being a young scientist myself, neither against women, for whose rights, I have been fighting for all my adult life and nothing against Punjabis, which is my paternal ethnic heritage but I cannot stand having any other criteria than merit to decide the future of our country. What sense does it make to appoint a science faculty as Principal to a college with only humanities subjects, unless it is for simple political reasons? From over a decade ago, before I moved to top Indian research institution and then to top US research facilities, when I was young undergraduate student at this same university, I knew a very incompetent teacher who used to knit sweaters in our classroom, while reading textbooks verbatim. Her acts and intelligence could have made middle school teacher look Aristotle or Socrates in comparison, though she did order free tea for us in cold December months. In sympathy with other women, she frequently advised my female classmates against pursuing a postgraduate degree telling of non-academic compromises it took for her to get a Ph.D. The last I heard from her is when she became a Principal of a new college under this new administration because of proximity to Indian National Congress.

Sitting in a U.S. research institution that has produced one of the most numbers of Nobel laureates in the field of Medicine; I have no problem pointing out some individuals in India. Nevertheless, pointing few such examples would not solve much and it would be unfair for only one or two incompetent political puppets to be recalled due to my finger pointing while the epithet of corruption remaining the same. So, I will leave pointing lower level individuals for some later stage, just giving them chills for now but focus on Rahul baba, puppet prime minister, corrupt ministers and VCs ruining our education.

Few years ago at the University of Delhi, a collusion of BJP and Congress’s political interests, led to a laughable act of allowing astrology (no, not astronomy but dumb stone age astrology) to be part of its curriculum. After much of controversy and worldwide ridicule acclaimed intellectuals, it was eventually withdrawn. One may wonder that after such infamy the government would not redo such mistake again but alas. The trend of non-secular intervention continues unabated. Somehow magically fundamentalist administrators, be it a Muslim, Sikh, Christian or Hindu whosoever suits Congress’s electoral play continues being appointed. Some of the ethnically focused institutions, whether for segments within minorities or majorities were created to encourage enrolment of students from segments who otherwise faced the danger of being left out without such privileged institutions. The goal was to create a modern alternative to inadequate and often sectarian madarasa or ashram kind of religious education that these youngsters might be turned to in absence of secure modern alternatives. To provide such education faculty from all ethnicities were hired and promoted. Now with politicization, somehow the faculty enrolment has started paralleling the bias in student enrolment, throwing the criteria of merit of faculty in the dirty ditch of politics. Such bias denies good quality education to target segments that these institutions were in the first place set up to provide for.

While a trip around the University of Delhi would bear out many such examples of decadence of this administration, I would like to point out a single notable piece of capitulation to religious fundamentalism so you can better see how appeasement of different ethnic group works for political convenience. Recently based on orders from Congress headquarters, the Vice Chancellor forced the University to withdraw ‘Three Hundred Ramayans’, a great text by AK Ramanujan that quite clearly captures the ubiquitous nature of Ramayana tales in the whole of Indosphere, even beyond Indian subcontinent like in the islands of Indonesia or lands as distant as Cambodia. The text educates to the fact that Ramayana has many local variants and it is a truly a tale of all Indic region with amazingly deep cultural penetration that has sway in shaping even an atheist like me, leave alone some orthodox Vaishnav Hindu. After saffron politicians stroke trouble objecting to this long-standing course material the talibanized RSS goons of Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of BJP got offended to this whiff of knowledge. Their argument (or more accurately non-argument) was that Valmiki Ramayana is the accurate one. The claim that one version of Ramayana is celebrated more is correct, especially when viewed with strictly North Indian Vaishnav lenses but the argument is ridiculous, as the material was not taught as a course on religion. This text was not an effort to say one version is right or wrong or which imaginary fried should one believe in or which organize religion is better, but a historical collection of different texts that exist in the Indosphere.

Five exemplary texts that captured the largest heterogeneity were chosen to capture the diversity of cultural heritage. Congress did not want to lose Hindu fundamentalist votes to BJP, so to one up the idiots of sangh, Sibbal decided to use his bully pulpit to remove the text from the course work all together. This move, where history and literatures appropriateness is decided by the sentimentality of ill-educated political goons instead of facts, is no different than banning some book because of a fatwa by some crazy Mullah in streets of Lahore, Riyadh or Kabul. Such yielding to pressure from religious bigots in general public life of India is not new and not even unique to Delhi’s Congress-BJP dominated politics. Who can forget unsympathetic treatment meted out to Taslima Nasreen by the stalwarts of left, the so-called secularists? What is new is the systematic attack on academic integrity by a demon of religious fundamentalism, corruption and dictatorship that is unleashed by Sibbal on the commands from 10 Janpath. This removal of highly acclaimed assay is being condemned worldwide and such acts continue to degrade the legitimacy of Indian education and validity of higher academic degrees.

More than the damage to Indian image or to the validity of Indian educational credentials, the impact from such acts, if recurrent, will render an already barren Indian innovation and academic landscape to become completely sterile. A healthy academic culture, where one can discuss life stories surrounding the myth and reality of lives of Prophet Mohammad, Guru Nanak, Jesus Christ or Lord Rama, when in the context of history or of linguistic style, independent from the sentimentality of religion or conduct research on the impact of a particular pesticide on human health, independent of the connections of that pesticide company to the ruling party, is a necessary backbone of any country aspiring to innovate and grow. I am actually not much of a Nehru fan on most socioeconomic and defence issues but what I think was his singular undisputed legacy of sowing the seeds of higher education is now being destroyed by his own great grandson.

I also want this article to serve as warning that if the state of affairs of Indian academia gets worse than international condemnations, signature by top academics including Nobel laureates, boycotts and derecognizing several academic degrees would have to initiated to stop this rot of academia in India. Such actions to improve India would not be unprecedented for Indian expatriates. Recently, to stop the murder of the rule of law by Indian judiciary that was allowing indefinite detention of people without evidence, the international community including many notable Indian expatriates jumped into action, shaming India at the world stage. This external ridicule and pressurization is the least pleasant and most painful thing an Indian can do but when reform does not come from within then one is not left with any other option. One may be aware of the fact that many degrees from India are not recognized internationally and the list is not shrinking. If this corrupt management run by Sibbal’s cronies continues ruining the quality of graduate and postgraduate education and stifles the intellectual output then whether one likes it or not, several other Indian academic honours, intellectual exchange programs will almost justifiably face an international axe. While there shall soon be action from international intellectual community if the victimization of secular teachers and Talibanization of education continues but what is truly needed in India is an internal change. No international pressure, punishment or encouragement can drag India to the modern era. Only Indians living in India can do so. The sleeping elephant has to wake up on its own, assuming the elephant is sleeping and not comatose or cold dead. It is unlikely that academic causes on their own would generate equal anger as has the corruption on street but all versions of Ramayana teach us that all sins add up. This murder of intellectual culture of central universities may provide additional fuel to the funeral pyre being readied for the political class if change does not come soon.

Dr. Sukant Khurana is a New York based scientist, artist and writer of Indian origin. His basic research involves neurophysiology, computational neuroscience, sensory perception, addiction, learning and memory, while his applied research extends into many areas of drug discovery and problems of the developing world. Both his visual art and writing explore the issues of modernization, displacement and identity.

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India’s Victory at the International Court of Justice is the World’s Challenge to the Status Quo

Manak Suri

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For the past week, both the Indian and British media have rigorously covered the story of the re-election of India’s justice Dalveer Bhandari to the bench of judges in the International Court of Justice on Tuesday, November 21. That the Indian judge retained his position on the bench was not the sole reason for the story’s extensive coverage; his reappointment combined with the fact that it happened at the expense of the United Kingdom’s spot on the bench is why the story is making so many rounds… and no, that many Indians may see it as some sort of a comeback against Britain’s 200 years of colonial rule over the country is not the reason why it matters. It matters because this is the first time since 1946 that the UK has no judge on the ICJ bench, and that signals possible changes in the way international bodies govern and are governed. So what does this mean for India, for the UK and for the world at large?

The International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice or the ICJ was established in 1945 by the United Nations as its principal judicial branch and is located in The Hague, Netherlands. Its job is to settle legal disputes between states that are submitted to it and give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it. The court comprises of a total of 15 judges that are elected to 9 year terms by way of voting from both the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) separately. One third of the court is re-elected every three years, and no two judges of the same nationality may assume positions on the bench simultaneously. However, the rule that led to the deadlock between the candidates from India and UK is that a candidate must obtain an absolute majority in both the UNGA and the UNSC in order to be elected to the bench.

UN General Assembly vs UN Security Council: The Race in Numbers

On November 9 and November 13, in seven rounds of voting justice Bhandari secured between 110 and 121 votes from a total of 193 in the UNGA against figures between 68 and 79 secured by his British counterpart Sir Christopher Greenwood. However, among the UNSC, justice Bhandari lost out by 5 votes to 9 in favour of Sir Greenwood. In the face of uncertainty, the UK then pushed for a ‘joint conference’ under the rules of the court between the UNSC and the UNGA. Under the ‘joint conference’ three countries from each side then determine the name for the court. However, the rules do not mention the procedure to select these countries and understandably so, since the option was last invoked in 1921. Fearing not enough support from the council, criticism for invoking the charter, and harming its friendly as well as economic relations with India, the UK eventually chose to not follow through with the process and withdrew its candidature for the post. In the end, India secured the seat with a total of 183 votes out of 193 at the UNGA and all 15 at the UNSC.

There is More to the Victory than Meets the Eye

The result means different things for the parties involved and also for the balance of power and influence between countries. For the UK, there are hardly any positives to take away from this result amid already turbulent times. Many in the British media have viewed this loss as ‘a blow to British international prestige’ and the country’s acceptance of a diminishing role in global affairs. This was the UK’s second major defeat at the ICJ after it lost a vote by a margin of 94 to 15 countries in June when the UNGA voted in favour of referring the question of decolonisation and self-determination of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean to the ICJ, which is currently under its control. Many within and outside the country have also been quick to blame Brexit for the situation in which they find themselves today, arguing that the other states, especially the ones within the European Union would have been less willing to snub the UK had the UK chosen not to leave the alliance. In the face of defeat, British diplomats have continued to maintain that they are happy that their close friend India has won, but have also not been shy of hiding their natural disappointment at their own loss.

For India, their victory in having a judge win the contest in getting elected to the ICJ bench against a permanent member of the UNSC is more symbolic than anything else. It reinforces India’s image at the highest stage as a major emerging global player and its ability to bring in greater reforms that push for more involvement from developing countries and emerging economies. Also, having a judge on the ICJ bench gives India an edge over Pakistan in the case involving former Indian Navy Officer Kulbhushan Jadhav who has been sentenced to death by a Pakistan military court on the charges of espionage. True, a judge on the ICJ does not represent his/her country or their interests. However, as suggested by repeated criticism the court receives for being biased in favour of the states who appoint the judges, having a judge on the panel is certainly an asset for any country, no matter what the rules dictate on paper.

The most important takeaway from the whole episode far exceeds the ambitions of just the two countries and a race for a seat at the ICJ. India’s victory at the court reinforces the belief that power does not necessarily reside or has to reside with the ‘few global elite’, a sentiment which was expressed clearly when most member states of the UNGA backed India’s justice Bhandari to be re-elected against the choice of the permanent members or P5 of the UNSC. There seems to be an acknowledgment among the member states of the UN of the beginning of a change which sees an increasing shift in the balance of power away from the traditional powers of the world or the P5 – Britain, China, United States, Russia, and France. Of these countries, China was the only member to not have a judge on the ICJ between 1967 and 1985 till the final decision last week, when they were joined by the UK in the list. Last year, Russia was voted off the United Nations Human Rights Council. In the 2016 elections, France lost out on securing a position in the International Law Commission. While diplomats at the UN continue to maintain that there are no winners and losers here, that it is all part of a bigger picture, these developments undoubtedly mark diplomatic victories for the Group of 77 or the G77, a coalition of developing nations at the UN that have constantly pushed for an enhanced negotiating capacity. What remains to be seen is just to what extent they bring about a change in the status quo.

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Iran’s Chabahar Port: How India, Afghanistan, and Iran Gain From it

Manak Suri

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November 11, 2017 was a significant day diplomatically and geopolitically for Iran, India, and Afghanistan. A trilateral cooperation between the three countries saw Afghanistan receive its first shipment of wheat from India which was set in motion by India’s minister of external affairs Sushma Swaraj on October 29 along with her Afghan counterpart Salahuddin Rabbani. The shipment was the first among a series as part of India’s commitment to supply 1.1 million tons of wheat to the people of the country suffering from decades of war and instability. At the center of this achievement lies Iran’s Chabahar port and the trilateral International Transport and Transit Corridor Agreement between the three countries.

The Iranian port in Chabahar: why it is so important

The Iranian port is located in the country’s southernmost city of Chabahar, and has periodically found itself making headlines especially as the Asian powerhouses in India and China compete for influence in the seas to establish trade relationships across Asia, Europe, and Africa. As China pumps more and more investment into its mammoth Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a modern take on the Silk Route to connect 60 countries across the three continents through land and sea routes, the port of Chabahar has over a period of time found its suitors in prime opponents of the BRI such as India and Japan with the former already investing around USD 500 million in the port. While the idea for the port’s development was first proposed in 1979, it is expected to be fully operational by the end of 2018.

It would be rather unrealistic to assume that the Chabahar port will challenge China’s BRI as a whole to a direct geopolitical contest. However, once fully operational, the port is expected to connect the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean with St. Petersburg in Russia and further ahead with Europe through the International North South Transport Corridor or the INSTC. India, Afghanistan, and Iran stand to gain in different ways both collectively and individually through this development in trade routes.

A win-win-win situation

The development of the Chabahar port presents the key for India to reforge an oil based relationship with Iran and to forge trade relations beyond Afghanistan with countries in Central Asia. Once the port is fully developed, it is expected to also carry a larger variety of cargo, including heavy engineering goods and electronics. With a much shorter route to Europe, the time taken to transport goods from ports in India to countries in Europe is expected to be reduced by more than half from the 45 days it currently takes for the cargo to reach its destination. It is also estimated the cost of the deliveries will be reduced by about 30-40%. Moreover, it seems extremely unlikely that India will be a part of the Chinese proposed BRI, given that an integral component of the initiative is the China Pakistan Economic Corrdior (CPEC) that runs through the Kashmir region whose ownership is hotly contested by both India and Pakistan. In that regard, the Chabahar port offers India the opportunity to challenge China at least in some capacity in their ever expanding contest for trade and influence across the globe, by connecting it to rail networks of different countries in Central Asia.

For a landlocked Afghanistan which has no direct access to the seas, the development of the Chabahar port and its agreement with India and Iran coming to fruition holds great significance. The port opens up the country to the world, and provides it with better access to trade, vastly reducing its dependency on its neighbour Pakistan and enabling it to forge even closer ties with India. Pakistan has in the past disallowed India to access the land route to Afghanistan for the provision of aid to the country. Now an alternate route through Chabahar allows for the same to reach the country first from the port to Zaranj, which is adjacent to Afghanistan’s border with Iran, and then further 218 km ahead into the country via the Zarang-Delaram highway.

For Iran, a fully functional seaport in Chabahar appears to be strategically important since it is located away from the historically contested waters of the Arabian Gulf. Recovering now from easing sanctions, Iran looks to climb the geopolitical ladder and reestablish itself in the coming decades. Amid worsening ties with the United States, it has caught the attention of China, Russia, and other countries in Europe and also looks to gain from its relation with India. The Chabahar port may just be the key to put an end to its economic isolation. Even with the United States and India recognising each other as allies, Iran has not yet found any opposition from the US against India’s cooperation with Iran on the port, and that is because the US recognises the benefit that Afghanistan is able to attain from India’s efforts through the Chabahar port.

India, Iran, and Afghanistan share historical civilisational ties and similarities and the same was referenced by Indian minister of external affairs Sushma Swaraj. “This shows the convergence between the ancient civilisations of India, Afghanistan and Iran to spur unhindered flow of commerce and trade throughout the region,” said Swaraj as she flagged off the first shipment of wheat to Afghanistan on October 29.

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A Choking City: What the Ongoing Toxic Week in Delhi Means for its People

Manak Suri

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A joke on the morbidity of New Delhi is circulating among Delhiites (people from Delhi) that while the lives of the citizens were disrupted in November last year due to ‘note-bandi’ (ban on currency), November of this year presents an even tougher test for the people with ‘saans-bandi’, a ban on breathing. The receding autumn or advent of winter was a once beloved season of a good number of people in the city who welcomed the change with a complete revamp of their wardrobes with colourful woollens. It is now characterized with bleak skies, an air of gloom and a little bit of grey in everything you see outside of your house.

For the past three days, I have been acutely aware of the air I am breathing, felt unproductive and apprehensive in spells for no good reason, and felt the need to confine myself to my house for as long as possible. These are some of the less apparent effects of the thick blanket of smog that has engulfed the national capital region. As a number of people donned with different types of masks on the roads and on Snapchat serve as a constant visual reminder of how the city is choking, a flurry of articles and news updates have presided over my feed. One of them included a horrifying viral video recording of vehicles ramming into each other due to poor visibility on the Noida-Agra Expressway as people scrambled to get themselves and their children out of the way, while some other articles argued about how currently breathing in Delhi for a day is the equivalent of smoking twenty cigarettes.

A sudden state of emergency

Less than two days ago, when the air quality in Delhi visibly worsened, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal likened the city to a ‘gas chamber’. The PM 10 and PM 2.5 levels in different parts of the capital have rocketed above the levels that are considered safe, and the Safar (System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research) has declared the air quality as ‘severe’ for at least the next three days after which the level may drop to a not so safe either ‘very poor’ level. In some parts of the city, the AQI (air quality index) was detected on monitors at 999, the highest possible reading, which suggests that the level might be even higher. The visibility during the early hours has also dropped to very low levels. Among the different reasons for the observed level of pollution in Delhi, slow winds at this time of the year have been identified as the prime contributor along with stubble burning by farmers in the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana. Combined with the dust particles present in the air, omissions from vehicles that plague the roads in the region throughout the day, and those from factories and construction activities, these factors dictate a recipe for creating uninhabitable conditions.

Making amends: A scramble for order

The Indian Medical Association on 7th November declared Delhi to be in a state of public health emergency, urging the Delhi government and other bodies to take adequate steps to ensure minimum risk to citizens, especially young children and the elderly, who are most likely to suffer from the effects of pollution. After a worsening situation, the government has ordered all schools in the capital to remain shut till Sunday, and has rolled out plans to implement the odd-even scheme for vehicles in the city from next week. Parking fee throughout the city has also been increased fourfold and the prices for travel by the metro have been substantially reduced for the time being to promote the use of public transport. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has also banned all construction and industrial activities till November 14 in a bid to provide the citizens of Delhi a breath of better quality air. Mr. Kejriwal has also approached his counterparts from Punjab and Haryana over the issue of stubble burning by the farmers but it remains to be seen how the move plays out in the coming days.

As the government battles against the situation, the public is taking measures to protect themselves in whatever way they can. An increasing number of doctors and specialists on the matter have advised people not to go out for morning walks or outdoor activities so as to not inhale excessive quantities of toxic pollutants. Some doctors have even advised their patients to leave the city for the time being if possible. Air purifiers for houses and masks for travelling outside have seen a huge rise in sales as nearly everyone has become an expert on the subject of filters and N95 and N99 have become trending words from pharmacies to WhatsApp conversations.

A year ago, while New Delhi wrestled with more or less the same conditions, UNICEF had called on the rest of the world to consider the situation as a wake up call. “It is a wake up call that very clearly tells us: unless decisive actions are taken to reduce air pollution, the events we are witnessing in Delhi over the past week are likely to be increasingly common”, it had said in a statement. If we are doing better than last year, it is still not enough, and all one needs is less than a minute in the open to be convinced of that. As the world battles with the effects of climate change, India’s bid to have a major global footprint in the coming decades is bound to take a serious hit if so many of its cities, and especially its capital follow a trend of being unlivable for a chunk of time at the end of every year.

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