Pollution in some world cities is more than 12 times higher than safe levels. Maybe it explains why residents aren’t taking to the streets to complain
After a week in Kolkata, blessed with mellow sunsets created by the yellowy haze that hung over the city, I flew back to Britain via Delhi on Friday. Our descent into Delhi was delayed because of fog, we were told, but the nicotine-coloured blanket smothering this dynamic Indian city was a malignant smog.
Delhi, a city of 25 million people and nine million vehicles, routinely experiences fine particulate pollution above 300 micrograms per cubic metre; the EU’s legal limit is 25. These figures are not abstract even for visitors. After just a few days in Kolkata and minutes in Delhi, I developed the dry hack known as “the Delhi cough”. Exert yourself outdoors and soon your eyes are streaming and your lungs aching.
Fifteen of the 20 most polluted places identified by the World Health Organisation are in India and China but winter smogs have hung over Barcelona, Milan and Naples, and this month some London streets breached annual EU limits for nitrogen dioxide in just a week. A recent study in Nature found that more people – 1.4 million people a year in China and 650,000 in India – die from air pollution than malaria and HIV combined.
Clean air should be a global priority, and it is puzzling that it is not. Unlike, say, climate change, toxic air is identifiable by the layperson, indisputably of the here-and-now, and kills rich as well as poor, which should make it a seductive subject for problem-solving by politicians.
But Britain is avoiding decisive action to scrap diesel vehicles, and India keeps the home fires burning because it is growing at 7.4%, faster than any major economy. Kolkata is plastered with government adverts urging investors to “ride the growth”. Presumably they mean in an SUV. We should be so much smarter.
Perhaps air pollution hasn’t been solved because no one makes a fuss: scarier than the smog in Delhi, Kolkata and London is the stoicism of residents for whom bad air has become part of daily life. I suppose it’s understandable why they’re not taking to the streets.
Where Seagulls dare
I visited Kolkata as part of an exchange organised by Writers’ Centre Norwich, in which writers from East Anglia and Kolkata swap cities and stories. Both places possess a rich intellectual past – but my most inspiring encounter was with the future, found on a dusty side-street.
Seagull Books, a highbrow publishing house, is a book-lovers’ fantasy. It translates into English exciting new writers from around the world as well as previously untranslated works by the likes of Roland Barthes, and sells these beautifully designed books globally. It makes London’s publishing scene look narrow-minded and blandly commercial. But Seagull is commercial too, tapping into its global audience. Kolkata, where students buy books by the kilo from hundreds of street bookstalls, sparks an uplifting thought: the future of English-language publishing, and literature, lies in India.
Feel my pane
After five years avoiding long-haul flights, I was amazed by the transformation of the aeroplane in my absence. I flew to India in a Boeing 787 Dreamliner whose high internal ceilings reduce claustrophobia and large windows offer panoramic views – of the smog stretching to the Himalayas.
These windows no longer have blinds, and I pressed a little button to turn the pane from opaque to clear to admire the snow-capped peaks of Afghanistan. Suddenly, a central switch was flicked and all windows were forcibly darkened. Airline passengers are already denied almost any autonomy and the possibility of gazing at our planet is the most joyful freedom in flying. It also calms my nerves. How sad that technological advances are so often accompanied by an intensification of control.