In Delhi these days, pollution-talk fills the air almost as thickly as the pollution itself. By now we all get that it’s bad for our health—especially for our young and elderly—but we might feel helpless against it. After all, the problem seems too big, and as individuals we can do little to modernize car engines, clean up road and construction dust, or decommission coal-fired power plants. So what can we do to help reduce the problem and protect our families?
The problem feels complicated and overwhelming partly because it’s a problem of the commons—of the common air that we all must breathe. And yet, it’s difficult to pin down the responsibility: Who creates the pollution? Whom can we ask to stop it? Why isn’t the government doing enough?
Here’s the thing: We know that most pollution is created by any and all kinds of burning—whether that’s the combustion in our car engines, the flames that bake our tandoori naan or “wood-fired” pizza, the smoldering dead leaves in our gardens, or dozens of other things. What this really means is that a good part of the pollution is ultimately caused by the actions of individuals—that is, by us. But it also means that every one of us can take steps to help reduce it.
Among MK Gandhi’s greatest words of wisdom was his exhortation that we must be the change we wish to see in the world. So here’s your chance to contribute more to the solution than to the problem:
- Reduce your car usage. Since most of us live very close to roadways, vehicular exhaust is a primary source of pollution that we’re exposed to, and congested traffic further compounds air pollution. We can gain immediate health benefits by reducing the number of vehicles on the road. Use your individual car or two-wheeler as little as possible. Follow traffic rules to reduce congestion. Walk, carpool, share rides, or use public transportation whenever and wherever you can. Talk to your employer about working from home or arranging for staggered office timings. To avoid the surge of toxic air that builds up around schools every morning because hundreds of parents individually drop off their children, arrange school bus rides for your kids. Whenever you’re idling at a red light or stuck in a jam for more than 10 seconds, turn off your engine to save fuel and money while reducing your emissions.
- Kick diesel to the curb. It’s well established that the diesel fuels used in India are excessively dirty: Today’s diesel creates up to 7 times more pollution than petrol. SEVEN TIMES! It’s also carcinogenic. If you have a diesel genset for power backup, shut it down. Trade it in for an inverter battery, which creates no extra emissions. And while you’re at it, trade in your diesel car for an electric, or one with a CNG or petrol engine.
- Don’t burn stuff. Burning of biomass (wood, leaves, gobar, etc.) significantly worsens Delhi’s pollution every year, especially in the wintertime when people burn to stay warm outdoors. And burning trash, especially plastic and rubber, creates extremely toxic fumes. Never burn these things for any reason. Instead, make sure all waste is properly disposed of; garden waste can even be mulched or composted. If you absolutely must burn wood for any reason, use one of the modern, pollution-reducing chulhas. And finally, on festive occasions, choose not to burn firecrackers or bonfires. Though each of us imagines that our one little cracker display or bonfire makes little difference, it’s good to remember that there will be a million other people in the NCR thinking exactly the same thing. All that smoke adds up! We must adapt old traditions to the new realities of living in a hyper-dense city so we don’t poison the very air our children breathe. You can lead the change by saying no to firecrackers and by burning lamps instead of bonfires.
- Cover your dust. Raised dust is also a significant contributor to pollution, not to mention an annoyance in our homes. If you notice areas near your home where dust is exposed, cover it with plants, bricks, pebbles, or some other ground cover. And when driving, stay on the paved roadway to avoid raising more dust into the air.
- Get up and agitate. Work with your neighbors in finding ways to reduce emissions within your residential colony. For example, provide other means to keep the chowkidars warm in winter without burning biomass, discourage firecrackers, and arrange carpools. Contact your local municipal representatives to make sure that trash is picked up instead of burned and that pavements are clear and safe for walking, cycling, and accessing public transit. Brainstorm local solutions to support lifestyles that create less waste, dust, and emissions, and join citizens’ initiatives like Help Delhi Breathe. In doing so, you’ll also help educate people and spark a change in the way we live. An informed citizenry is important to keep the pressure on our government to improve public transport and walking infrastructure, demand cleaner emissions standards from fuel and auto makers, develop clean energy sources, and implement other policies to reduce pollution at the industrial level.
Changing these things may add up to quite a lifestyle shift for some of us, but these collective changes can bring about a cleaner, less congested, more livable city, which ultimately contributes to our own improved health and reduced stress. We may not be able to control the actions and choices of our neighbors and relatives, but we can control our own. And in making environmentally healthy choices, we can set an example, raise awareness, and become the change we seek.