The roads of the capital are shrouded in a haze. The toxicity of the air is at many times the permitted level by global standards. International flights are being cancelled. Visiting cricket teams refuse to play on our fields. Schools are often closed. Simply breathing in Delhi is now equivalent to smoking around 40 cigarettes a day.
We act as if we had not expected this occurrence and cannot understand how to solve it. We purchase face masks and air purifiers and grumble about the air. We wait for it to pass. But it never passes, because the air is toxic all year round. Only for a very short period, in the rainy season, does the amount of particulate matter dip to permissible levels. As a father, I am deeply concerned about the permanent damage being done to my three-year-old daughter’s health, as indeed to the health of all the city’s children. Even the protection I can afford to provide my child, by travelling in the metro or in air-conditioned cars and having her sleeping with an air purifier at night, cannot shield her from all exposure to the air.
It makes me depressed to drive through this great capital when I see the streets and traffic intersections crowded with homeless people in rags, followed by children of three or four, banging on the windows of every passing car demanding alms, exposed to air of a toxicity I shudder to imagine. They have no air-conditioned cars or air purifiers, and are forced to employ all their time on the roads, begging for sustenance.
I think everyone would agree that the prodigious number of children at our intersections tagging along with their mothers, and frequently their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the national capital a very great tragedy, even aside from the fact that they obstruct traffic, and are a threat to themselves and others.
But my thoughts at this time are far from being confined to only the children of professed beggars; they are of a much greater extent, and consider the whole population of infants in the national capital born of parents who are not able to provide them with the kind of care and protection they need to become healthy, productive members of society. Is anyone thinking about their, and our, collective future? In the absence of any genuine schemes to improve their condition, the reality is that many children, too many, continue to be employed as labourers in hotels and shops, in carpet-making and embroidery workshops, and in a whole range of industries, so that they can contribute to their and their families’ upkeep. But even their pathetic state is not as alarming as that of children who are abducted, trafficked and forced into sex work, or into slave-like labour in sugarcane fields or brick kilns. Under these circumstances, perhaps it is time to think of solutions which are out of the ordinary, which reflect visionary thinking about the future instead of simply parroting the same old failed mantras of universal education and poverty reduction.
The population of the capital is estimated at 19 million people, of which, according to my calculation, 4 million are children aged four and below. From this, we can subtract 50,000 children like my own child, whose parents are able to provide them with the best education and equip them to be global citizens of the future. We can also perhaps subtract, at most, an additional 200,000 children whose parents are conscientious and able enough to guarantee their progeny a basic private-school education, which will at least ensure that they gain some fluency in English and thus become employable in service positions with reputable Indian or multinational firms. This being granted, there will remain 3.75 million children. I can again subtract 200,000 children of poor parents who will be admitted to good private schools under the present regime of quotas, study hard and thrive, and another 50,000 who may demonstrate special talents, as the children of the poor often do, as, say, singers on Indian Idol, or Slumdog Millionaires or tearaway fast bowlers for the Indian Premier League. But there still remain 3.5 million children with no future.
The question, therefore, is how these millions of children shall be made to become proud, productive and contributing members of our society. Unlike the children of peasants in the countryside, they can neither work the land nor make handicrafts. And few are able to develop the fine motor skills required for pickpocketing till they reach the age of ten—except in certain parts of the country such as Kolkata, where I was informed by an officer in a boys’ probationary home that many of the inmates were third-generation pickpockets, who began practising at the tender age of four by discreetly slicing open bags of rice, and were renowned for the quickest proficiency in the art.
In Delhi, in interviews with employers in embroidery workshops and roadside dhabas as part of a social-scientific study of an industrial neighbourhood, my colleagues and I discovered that children below the age of ten have no economic value. Parents cannot sell children past that age for above Rs 3,000, and even then a child needs to work for many years to repay the employer’s investment.
Let me now humbly propose my own thoughts on this matter, which I hope you will read through in full without prejudgment.
Research by paediatric pulmonologists at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences shows that a child of the age of two, when well nursed and cared for, can each day inhale and absorb, without immediately falling ill, a quantity of pollutants equivalent to that produced by as many as 40 cigarettes. If properly conditioned, particularly to nurture lung capacity, by the age of four a child’s daily intake and absorption of pollutants can reach quantities closer to those produced by 200 cigarettes.
I therefore propose that the capital’s 3.5 million otherwise future-less children be trained to be Purifying Organisms for Toxic Air, or POTAs, for our city. At the age of two, they shall be sent to organic farms in the Himalayan foothills, where they will receive fresh food, clean air and water, and a daily regime of eight hours of yoga breathing exercises. Upon reaching the age of four, they shall be fitted with enormous funnels in their gullets, and organised into teams of gaspers, to be posted in rotating shifts at intersections across the National Capital Region.
I have spoken to highly placed officials in the Delhi government, who have committed to initially hire 100,000 POTAs on a contract basis to serve at five busy intersections—at Ashram, Anand Vihar ISBT, Punjabi Bagh, ITO and Azadpur Mandi—and to arrange for enough open green space at these locations to accommodate large teams of gaspers and offset their carbon-dioxide emissions. Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport has pledged to hire 375,000 POTAs to be stationed along all final-approach routes to improve visibility. The Delhi and District Cricket Association has agreed that visiting international cricket teams will be provided with POTAs as per their requirements. The starting allocation will be for a cordon of five gaspers around each foreign fielder from a third-world country, and seven around each fielder from a first-world one. Fast bowlers will be granted retinues of up to 20 gaspers to chase them on their run-ups, medium-pacers up to 15, and spinners up to 12, upon request. Additionally, batsmen will be allowed up to 20 POTAs each to accompany them while running between the wickets.
POTAs who prove to be exceptional gaspers will be rewarded with plush postings at government events such as the Republic Day parade, the opening of the flower gardens at Rashtrapati Bhavan, and state visits by the Queen of England or the president of the United States of America.
Of the 3.5 million POTAs, one million will be kept available at all times for private functions, such as polo matches, lawn parties at the Gymkhana Club and weddings at Chhattarpur farmhouses. Wedding season in Delhi will become a dazzling affair, with squadrons of between 5,000 and 10,000 youngsters, resplendent in sherwanis and lehenga-cholis, marching before the processional brass band, the groom’s white steed and myriad revellers, sucking clean the air in their path.
Some persons are greatly concerned about the life expectancy of POTAs, which I confess will mercifully not be as long as that of workers employed today in the open dump at the capital’s Ghazipur landfill, which by my records is 39 years. The extended lifespan of these persons is due to the inexpedient use of their resources, as a result of which they spend long stretches in unemployment in between phases of productive labour, which invariably stretches the duration of their lives. Regressions run by a private consulting firm of international repute suggest that, all variables considered, POTAs will expire after six years of full service, at the age of ten, at which stage they will be rationally disposed of.
I was recently discussing this scheme with an eminent environmentalist, a true lover of this nation’s green spaces, whose values I highly esteem, who offered a refinement upon my scheme. He said that many gentlemen of this city who own farmhouses feel that the charm of patrician country living has been entirely lost because of the foulness of the air. To own a farmhouse without being able to have a shandy in a planter’s chair on the verandah while the sun fades away in an auburn haze is as good as not having a farmhouse at all. My gentleman friend suggested that POTAs displaying better social graces may be employed in such farmhouses, where they may, in between gasps, also recite short poems on nature’s bounty in the Queen’s English. With due deference to my friend’s suggestion, I cannot be altogether in his sentiments; for as scientists at AIIMS who have studied the matter assure me, to maximise the lung capacity of children requires single-minded focus on breathing, leaving little time for side ventures such as learning the rudiments of reading and writing, much less English Romantic poetry. Besides, it is not improbable that some scrupulous people might be apt to censure such a practice (although indeed very unjustly), as a little bordering upon the insensitive; which, I confess, has always been with me the strongest objection against any project, however so well intended.
But I considered the proposal of my friend, who said this inspired idea was put into his head by an account he had read of his great-grandfather, who served as a district magistrate in Midnapore, where he taught his punkah-pullers not only to make gin and tonics but also to recite “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and, in the case of one particularly clever chap named Hamza, three Latin stanzas from the Aeneid.
Those with a fetish for costly high-tech gimmickry have proposed alternative schemes for purifying the capital’s air. The defence ministry has been in close communication with its counterpart in Israel ever since the thawing of bilateral relations under the present government. Inspired by Israel’s missile-defence system, an invisible contraption referred to in the media as an Iron Dome, the ministry proposes to construct a literal dome over the entire National Capital Region. This will not only keep out foreign missiles but also external pollutants—such as those, as per a National Intelligence Agency study, being deliberately launched into our airspace by the aggressive burning of agricultural material in Pakistan. To expel pollutants produced within the capital itself, the ministry proposes to commission an elaborate network of suction fans feeding into a 500-kilometre pipeline to the border crossing at Wagah, where the black air will be thrust upon our enemies.
I think the advantages of the proposal I have made over such schemes are obvious, as well as of the highest importance. For one, it is organic and entirely sustainable, the supply of futureless children within our present system being almost limitless. For another, it would reduce the toxicity not only of our air but also our social body. There may be those with vested interests in the status quo who say that it cannot be done. But society can be changed and so can individuals. We can make a difference if we but try. As a gesture of good faith I would offer up my own progeny for service as a POTA, but she will soon be four and past the training age for gasping.
Kushanava Choudhury is the books editor at The Caravan.