Matters India |Thursday, November 23, 2017
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I can breathe! 

By Valson Thampu

When I was approaching my retirement from St. Stephens, Delhi, an apprehension was improvised that I’d be asked to continue in office, and that I’d oblige. I didn’t blame them. I knew they knew not Kerala. And never breathed the air, say, in Trivandrum.

Now, don’t gape. The AQI in Trivandrum is 13, as compared to . . . you know what, don’t you, in Delhi? Imagine breathing air forty times purer!

So, one thing is certain. The Canadian firm, Vitality Air, that made mega bucks selling canned air even to China, has no scope in Kerala. I rarely see people buying mineral water in Trivandrum. The pipe water I get in my kitchen is purer than what you buy, in full faith, as established brands of mineral water in the market. If I merely bottle and sell this water, I could make a fortune. (I suspect many do.)

But let’s return to Delhi.

Sorry, I am amused. I wonder what is more polluted: the air out there, or our brain?

Do people really believe that air will get cleaner, purer by blaming each other? Really?

Or, by looking for scapegoats? When even a school kid knows that everyone pollutes, each according to his ability?

Or, do we believe that all this pollution, choking much of North India, is spewed by Delhi and, in Delhi, its Chief Minister?

Let me tell you why we will make a lot of noise about this disaster, but get nowhere with it. I need to use an illustration, to root our thinking in real world.

I remember visiting the science block of St. Stephen’s in my first year as principal. It was raining. To my shock I found buckets and basins kept here and there to trap rain water seeping down from the roof plentifully. I visited the computer lab and found 14 PCs utterly ruined, with rainwater from the roof falling directly on them. Nobody seemed concerned.

I called a meeting of the senior teachers of Physics and Chemistry. Asked them to study the problem and submit a report on what needs to be done. They agreed to do so in three months. When, after six months, nothing was forthcoming, I convened a second meeting. On being asked what their findings were, a member of the physics department said, “Sir, we don’t see any problem with the labs and lecture rooms. What’s your problem?”

Now, there are several staff accommodations on the campus of the college. If and when there is a leak in the roof of any of these quarters, there will be no end of ‘problems’. If common facilities leak or are in dilapidation or in pollution, ‘we don’t have a problem.’

Well, that’s so only for as long as the consequences do not affect people individually. Pollution in Delhi and the rest of North India has become an issue because it hurts everyone, those who pollute and those who do not.

If you generate smoke and it is sure to go into your own lungs, you won’t do it. You think, it is going into everyone else’s lungs. So, make smoke; but don’t be caught. So goes the logic.

One of our perennial problems is our inability to see the continuity between us and others. I don’t know how you see this. But it is clear to me; it is our bad education -or what we think is ‘education’- that is choking North India in this manner and all of India in other ways. Unless we see the link between our classrooms and our pollution-choked environment, believe me, there will be no breakthrough.

Where in the education chain do we teach that our freedom should end where the other man’s nose begins? We ply such a murderously individualistic idea of education that the best of its beneficiaries is indifferent to what happens beyond his nose.

How many educated people have you seen stopping by a fellow human being, injured and bleeding in a street accident? Forgotten that haunting visual, during demonetization days, when a young man -certainly well-educated- walking over the dead body of a fellow customer in a bank queue, to reach the counter soonest? And a serpentine queue of customers standing stone still, unconcerned that a fellow human being had fallen and perished under their noses?

All right then, go now to the Delhi University Library System. Check books, magazines and journals. I reckon that at least 30 percent of them would be seriously mangled. Why? Two reasons. First, laziness. It is a lot easier to tear off the relevant pages than to sit and make notes. Second, selfishness. You can secure some advantage by keeping these pages out of the reach of others.

We call this education! What is more, if you talk about it, you are damned as an antediluvian moralist, an old-fashioned bore too naïve to know that we now live in a brave, new world.

We are choking, not because we like it. We are choking because nobody minds his neighbour choking! End of the day, everybody is a neighbour. So, all choke! Since this truth is unpleasant, we must invent scapegoats and scream damnation at them.

Do so, by all means. But do rush to the nearest store and get the best, most expensive mask; one that can be used ‘safely’ for more than thirty minutes. Your mask is now, my friend, the new LoC. Guard it tight!

If we can’t keep the air clean, that is the next best we can do. And why not? But what will you do when the visibility gets so poor that you begin to have difficulty in locating masks?

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