One of the most telling markers of Delhi’s air pollution crisis is a signboard in the foyer of The Oberoi. The recently-renovated 52 year-old luxury hotel in the heart of India’s capital boasts of its “clean air”. Guests are promised air quality at par with global standards, courtesy its state-of-the-art clean air technology. At 8 am on November 10, for example, the air quality, measured in fine particulate matter (PM2.5), was 13 inside the hotel’s guest rooms. In the city, the corresponding figure was 302. Health experts consider an AQI (air quality index) above 100 as unhealthy.
With so much talk about masks, gasps, breathlessness, you would think that everyone is aware of the devastating ways that toxic air impacts us, and that everyone would want to do something about it. The World Health Organisation recently came out with a study on air pollution and health that spoke at length about the scale of the crisis, how it is not just respiratory diseases, but also low birth weight, poor neurodevelopment, asthma etc in children. All this is known.
How then do you explain the stubborn insistence on bursting crackers beyond the time mandated by the Supreme Court in the name of religion and culture? Now, no one says Diwali crackers is the main reason why we are gasping for breath. There are many other reasons - burning of crop residue in neighbouring states before winter, vehicular emissions, construction dust, waste incineration, etc. But restrictions on crackers were put in place by the Supreme Court to make sure that an already alarming situation does not become even worse. If there was political will, the order would have been rigorously implemented.
But in these polarised times, wilful defiance of a Supreme Court ruling becomes akin to participating in a dharm yudh. Soon after the Supreme Court allowed bursting crackers only for two hours (8 pm to 10 pm) on Diwali, BJP MP from Madhya Pradesh Chintamani Malviya said he wouldn’t tolerate any interference in Hindu traditions and was ready to happily go to jail for furthering his religious traditions. The social media was rife with sly references to “Islamic rule” and the “targeting” of Hindu festivals. In my South Delhi neighbourhood, the sound of cracker bursts could be heard past midnight on Diwali. Which brings me to one of the prickliest issues of the day.
Are we letting people get away with thwarting public health goals in the name of religion and culture? Clashes between religious beliefs and medical science is nothing new, nor is this unique to India. In the United States, this has manifested itself in debates on childhood vaccinations, blood transfusions, and access to contraception.
Earlier this year, the case of a couple in Michigan who were charged over the death of their 10-month-old daughter renewed the debate about withholding medical care because of religious beliefs. The couple were charged with felony murder and first-degree child abuse after their daughter died from malnutrition and dehydration. Astonishingly, more than 30 states in the United States have religious exemptions that allow parents to forgo medical treatment for a child if it conflicts with their religious beliefs.
In India, the situation is paradoxical. In the name of safeguarding religion, many are willing to take risks with their health. In election season, this gets worse. But despite all the holy talk, half-burnt bodies continue to be dumped in the Ganga, dirtying the holy river, and the unregulated use of fireworks continues to pollute the air, extracting a huge human cost.
And yet, religion need not be inimical to public health goals. It can be leveraged for the greater good of the greatest number. As health expert Anant Bhan points out, “culture and religion are fluid. Leveraging them is important”.
How India finally won the battle against polio, a feat considered impossible for many years, is a case in point. Community mobilisation and religion played a critical role in the last lap. For years, Muslim communities in parts of Uttar Pradesh did not let their children take the polio vaccine because of mistrust. To plug this gap, prominent Muslim religious leaders were roped in the last lap of the battle against polio; they played a vital role in making Uttar Pradesh and the whole country free of polio.
There were many challenges on the ground — lack of awareness about polio, misconceptions and myths revolving around the polio drop itself. I have met many Muslim families in places like Moradabad who genuinely believed that the vaccines would harm their children and they refused to allow their children to take those drops. Muslim clerics joined hands with health officials and agencies like Unicef and urged parents to immunise their children.
For most Indians, religion is deeply enmeshed with everyday life. The interests of religion and public health often overlap. Most religions that I know of focus on social justice and the protection of vulnerable populations. This is entirely in keeping with public health goals.
Religion has been leveraged for the greater public good when there has been strong political will, as in the battle against polio. That being so, there is really no reason why religion can’t be leveraged once again to fight the battle against polluted air.
No religion could possibly condone worsening the health of millions of people on any count. Bursting toxic fire crackers is not an article of faith. It has nothing to do with saving any religion. Crackers are not the only reason why Indian cities have poisonous air but it makes it worse. Common sense suggests that in a crisis situation, you try not to make things worse. Polluted air also does not differentiate between the believer and non-believer, between Hindus and non-Hindus.
If there is political will, it is possible to ensure that religion and faith are used to clean up our air and our rivers. However, there is a big question. In an election year, will any political party show that it has the will?