It is like early evening at noon and midnight soon after - a setting so eerie as to lend the atmosphere a dystopian touch of a disaster movie. What has happened to Chennai, the beloved city of two million inhabitants who were blessed enough to be living by the sea in a metropolis that began its existence as a set of sleepy fishing villages? To see this ugly invasion of foul air, courtesy the national capital and its surrounds, is the most disappointing and worst climatic development in several years.
Accustomed somewhat to annual visitations of calamity in a string of events from the 2015 floods and the breezy Cyclone Vardah of 2016 down to Cyclone Gaja of last year, Chennai may have anticipated something blowing through with wind and rain. But not this monstrosity of pollution-reducing us to this hopeless state in which anyone breathing the air is likely to encounter pulmonary complications. There has never been a week like this in the city’s history of hazy, unhealthy weather.
The occasional hazy days of ‘winter’ may be par for the course, especially in the Tamil months of Karthigai, Margazhi and Thai when relatively low humidity would present a different kind of Chennai. Nothing, however, prepared us for this gargantuan flotilla of waves of smog blowing in from north India and choking a city that was famous for its sea breeze that would blow away every night all the gathered automobile pollution of the day.
We used to laugh at the New Delhi air while recollecting what happens to people who expose themselves to the liberal doses of PM 2.5 particles and come away retching or with such acute discomfort of the throat, all in the space of a day’s sojourn to the capital. Today, we face the same monster that is choking us, teasing the adults and mystifying the children who are gaping at this monstrosity taking away their right to breathe the clean air.
It is believed that the massive air circulation of Cyclone Bulbul is the cause for the detestable air of Delhi to float down to us from the north. Hyderabad got a whiff of it early. While Chennaiites complained after the only reliable “weather vane” of the city - Tamilnadu Weatherman - had warned us that the blanket smog could roll down towards the southeast, one government official mocked him. He called the news of the early warning of this disaster a “fabrication”.
Why would a top government health official dismiss a theory without a moment’s thought as to the possibilities of such air movement bringing discomfort to the land of the Tamils. You can never write off the chances of smoke from huge fires or a blanket of poor air moving with the wind. The Northwesterlies have driven the fumes emanating from Delhi, NCR and UP to Hyderabad and further south and into the eastern coast too.
Denying this is akin to presenting a Donald Trump eye - the modern version of the nelson eye - to global warming or climate change. This hazard is more deadly than the Asia brown cloud that we have been inured to living under. For Chennai to suffer this is so unusual that we fear an entire city is without hope in simply suffering the syndrome and without the wherewithal to do anything about it. What do you do when the ill wind blows like this?
When the forests of Indonesia burn every year, the smoke smothers Singapore. The F-1 drivers are taught special breathing exercises to blow out whatever is there in their nasal passages as they tackle an additional hazard of foul air over the exciting road race along the Marina Bay every year. It is a temporary occupational hazard for the celebrity drivers who move on after a week. But what about those who are forced to live in these conditions, much like the Delhiites?
The world will do no favours to us as we fill our cities with automobile fumes of the worst kind, the so-called Bharat Stage standard fuels freely mixing with kerosene in auto-rickshaws that nullify all the sophistication in modern fuels. One auto spewing fumes generously will kill 100 cars running on BS-IV or even on tomorrow’s BS-VI that will have only 10 ppm sulphur and bring down PM in diesel cars by 80 per cent besides bringing down the even more deadly nitrous oxides from diesel cars.
Unless we come down hard on polluting two-wheelers and three-wheelers, our BS fuel standards will not help curb emissions and the pollution. The point is local problems contribute much to the added pollution levels Chennai is suffering, but the current phenomenon appears to have been imported from the north of India. We have to grin and bear it until the rain comes. The one lesson the haze may have taught is Chennai can’t take anything for granted in its war to keep its air clean.