Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: Health service failing in dispute over equality; does that sound familiar?

Malachi O'Doherty, who has just returned from a trip to polluted, smog-bound Delhi, finds Indian fatalism putting him in mind of home

Foreign tourists wearing face masks visit the Taj Mahal under heavy smog conditions
Foreign tourists wearing face masks visit the Taj Mahal under heavy smog conditions

I got out of India just in time. That is how I planned it. The massive spike in air pollution that has led to Delhi issuing millions of masks to school children was wholly foreseen. I booked my return from the city for October 23, knowing that the smog over the city thickens every year at this time.

The air across the northern plain was smokey while I was there. This smoke came from stubble-burning by farmers. I had seen the burning fields on a drive from Chandigarh into Delhi. I had seen and smelt the same smoke hundreds of miles away, not just in the city, but to the east of it by the Ganges when I was there.

But I knew, and everyone knew, that the pollution would more than double in its intensity and toxicity at the end of October. The trigger for this escalation is the same every year: the fireworks of the feast of Diwali.

Diwali is a religious festival. Hindus express their devotion to Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, believing that, through devotion to her, they bring upon themselves the prospect of enrichment.

In fact, the fireworks choke the city. Far from their lives being improved by this act of worship, they are diminished.

I was in Delhi through Diwali several times in the 1970s. It was an amazing event. The rattle of fireworks exploding was a constant wall of sound that went through the whole night.

Now, the city has a population approaching 30 million. There have been efforts to ban the fireworks, or to encourage people to use green fireworks, which do not seed the air they breathe with poisonous particles.

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When I was in Delhi in January, the pollution level was officially termed "hazardous". This week, the city has issued five million masks to school children to protect them from the toxins in the air. In January, almost no one was wearing the masks. People in Delhi joke about the bad air.

A tweet this week says that children smoke cigarettes, men smoke cigars and legends come to Delhi, where breathing the air is reckoned to be equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes a day.

The daughter of a friend of mine scoffed at my concerns about the air. She said that she reacted badly to fresh air, never having known it as a child. When she went to New Zealand, she broke out in a rash.

I bought an inhaler while I was there. No prescription needed.

I came back from my first trip in January with all the symptoms of asthma, my lungs wheezing so loudly that my wife could hear the noises as she lay beside me in bed.

There were sounds like a baby crying, others like the crunching cogs of a machine.

My doctor prescribed inhalers and, ultimately, a course of steroids and a referral to a consultant. By the time the appointment came round, the "asthma" had cleared.

India's self-asphyxiation is far away from us, but I wonder if there are lessons to be learnt.

One obvious strand of the discussion around this over there is the refusal to accept that Diwali is the problem.

Perhaps people don't want to be seen to be criticising religious practices, or to find themselves confronting a religious culture in a demand for change. So, they blame the farmers, who are, indeed, half the cause.

And the farmers say they are being picked on. For both sections of interest, the quarrel over who to blame is more important than resolving the problem.

Sound familiar? In a region which is allowing its health service to collapse over a dispute about "equality", it should do.

The city has made efforts to improve things. Public hire vehicles in Delhi now run on compressed natural gas, rather than diesel. Smoking cigarettes in public is banned. You never see anyone smoking in Delhi.

And, in response to the most recent escalation of the problem, the city has ordered that cars can only be driven by odd number and even number regulation on alternating days.

But the most striking thing for the outsider is the blithe response of local people. India expects to be a superpower in a generation. It has a space programme and nuclear weapons.

Yet, it is choking the children who will form that generation, who will be expected to carry the country forward towards that dream.

The country wants tourism, but at some point our own governments will have to warn people of the danger.

But many scoff at the problem. Bangladeshi cricketers faced with the question of whether to cancel a match dismissed the danger, even though the last time they played in Delhi some players vomited on the pitch.

The team coach said: "Look, there's a bit of pollution in Bangladesh as well, so it's not a massive shock."

Pollution in Delhi is officially classed as "severe" this week, at 20 times the level accepted as safe by the World Health Organisation. This isn't to say that there is no anger. There is a lot of it. The chief minister himself has described the city as a "gas chamber".

But that anger comes up against a fatalistic sense that there isn't much to be done and that suffocating smog is the new normality. And this is what we do. We adjust and carry on. Look back on the worst of the Troubles here and what do we always see in the news reports and photography but people getting on with their lives, playing down the impact of bomb scares and atrocities when the immediate impact has passed.

How many pictures have you seen of a woman pushing a pram past a crouching soldier, children playing in rubble?

Delhi is a warning to the world that, when climate change becomes horrifically obvious and undeniable, most of us will go on denying it. We will even joke about it.

And what else can people do anyway but get on with their lives?

There is a strange human propensity for accommodating ourselves to disaster.

We are resigned to hazard being the price of material progress. We would, surely, never have developed the motor car if we had foreseen how many people would be killed on our roads.

People go on smoking, knowing that they are shortening their lives.

We are maybe too lazy to save ourselves.

An exhibition of Malachi O'Doherty's photographs from India opens at the EastSide Visitor Centre, 402 Newtownards Road, Belfast today (7pm). For details, see www.visiteastside.com/events

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