A harried parent called a few weeks ago. She wanted to know if the pollution levels in Delhi were bad and if so how bad. The answer was simple and obvious. But why do you need to know? Her daughter’s prestigious school (which I will leave unnamed) had sent a circular to parents, saying they are planning to shift to air-conditioned buses because they were worried about air pollution. She wanted to know if this was the right decision.
My answer changed. The fact is that pollution levels are high and we do need to find ways to bring them under control. But the solution is not to think that the rich can find ways to avoid breathing the air, and so keep pollution at bay. I asked her if the school was also planning to build an air-conditioned funnel for walkways and an air-conditioned gymnasium so that children would not be exposed to this foul air.
What an irony that instead of fighting pollution and demanding change, the city’s rich and famous —many drive big cars and run them on subsidised diesel—think they can escape this noxious air. They can opt out of the whole “dirty” system and even generate their own air to breathe.
But escape is not so easy. Air pollution and, in fact, environmental degradation are great levellers. Consider this: there is more than enough evidence that in-vehicle pollution is often a greater risk than the air outside, however foul. Worse, air-conditioned vehicles are more polluted than those with no air-conditioning. A recent study from China (where pollution levels are certainly bad) shows that the air inside air-conditioned buses was dangerously high on air toxins like benzene, toluene and xylene. The level of toxins in these buses was higher than in open buses. This is easy to understand.