Delhi-wale, it’s smog, not fog

A foggy evening in a park in 2010

A foggy evening in a park in 2010

It seems that everyone in Delhi — as is common this time of year — is concerned about Delhi’s weather and the thick soupy mess that ruins lungs and visibility and generally delays everything. I remember once getting lost at night literally 100 yards from my own apartment because I couldn’t see. Delhi-wale understand that this is an annual occurrence, though apparently it’s worse than usual.

But our understanding of what is actually happening suffers from a few misperceptions, so we in the middle or upper classes remain unable (or choose not) to diagnose the situation properly. And for lack of a good diagnosis, we are unlikely to ever ameliorate the worst of it.

What do I mean? Let’s begin with an unscientific but poignant armchair test. I have Googled two sets of terms. Consider their hit counts.

Delhi fog: 1,380,000,000 hits

Delhi smog: 1,180,000 hits

Clearly, linguistically, we consider this to be fog. In our collective understanding, it’s not smog, which would more strongly imply pollution.

I can hear the Delhi-ite protesting that s/he is not an idiot and knows full-well that Delhi suffers from air pollution. I agree, but as a rejoinder, I ask, “When was the last time someone speaking Hindi said “smog-wog” instead of “fog-wog.” My point: The language we use to describe the phenomenon colors our perception.

Why do we think this way? Well, for starters, fog is historical in this season, so it’s common to react as though nature is just being nature. This is the climate of Delhi and the climate of Delhi suggests there will be fog at this time of year. So perhaps we’re already less inclined to consider this critically.

Our perception of the “fog” also suffers because baselines are always shifting — a concept that arose from fisheries analysis that suggests we collectively have trouble understanding what a system used to be like in the generation before us. This arises because the memories of a system early in my career or childhood form my baseline for assessing change and I have great difficulty then quantifying/understanding the experience of a generation before me. So we can expect that most people in Delhi will have trouble really discerning whether the “fog” was better or worse in previous periods because their baselines don’t include the generation prior. Broadly speaking, our inter-generational memory is crap.

In addition, I will argue that the massive socioeconomic changes that have occurred even intra-generation in India actually further hamper our ability to discern whether the “fog” is actually worse. This is because the yardsticks by which we might measure the severity today — for example, technical monitoring, the number of delayed flights, visibility while driving — are difficult to compare to, say, twenty years ago. Definitions of particulate matter change as does monitoring equipment and stations, particularly given India’s rapidly developing techno-capacity. Meanwhile, the number of flights has grown drastically, as has the number of people who have experience driving in “fog.”

Unfortunately, when we in the middle/upper class do see the “fog” more appropriately as “smog,” we may still tend to inappropriately assign blame to the poor.

(Note: This is hardly an Indian phenomenon. The world over, in developed and developing country alike, we wrongly blame the poor both for their poverty and for pollution. In 1972 at the U.N. Conference on the Human Environment, then-PM Indira Gandhi famously declared that “poverty is the biggest polluter” and most of the world’s leaders agreed.)

Back to the case of Delhi’s smog: In winter, India’s poor are often forced to resort to outdoor fires — cow dung, wood, scrap paper, leaves, plastic, whatever — to keep warm. And it all seems perfectly reasonable, as Delhi winter nighttime temperatures approach freezing, so staying warm is literally a public health concern. The haze of these fires is a common experience among hutments as is the small fire outside a chowkidar’s shack in middle and upper class neighborhoods. This is a tangible occurrence, and it certainly contributes to the annual smog — visible, smellable, heavy particulate smoke in the air can’t be ignored — but it’s certainly not the only cause.

The middle and upper classes deserve a hefty share of blame, for several reasons. First, we keep warm by increasing our electricity consumption to power those ubiquitous space heaters. Electricity in India primarily comes from coal-fired powerplants, which we know is a heavy polluter. But because we don’t all have a smokestack in our neighborhood, we tend to ignore that portion of our contribution to the smog. Second, the middle and upper classes drive and car exhaust is another serious pollution source. Yet we also tend to ignore this because it is a part of our year-round experience. There’s no temporal pollution source to link to the seasonal “fog.” Yet our tailpipes are certainly doing their part. Third, consider a prime culprit behind Delhi’s perpetual dust, which also contributes to poor air quality. Delhi, like most major Indian cities, is constantly under construction. A lot of this construction is for the newly minted, ever increasing middle and upper classes. And while construction itself yields volumes of air-borne particulate, construction also tends to rip up green spaces which otherwise might mitigate airborne dust and keep soil in place. But again, construction is year-round (and a sign of prosperity) so perhaps we tend to think of it less.

This would all be idle pontification if we didn’t also know that Delhi’s air quality is actually hazardous, particularly in this season.

Of course, air quality is an environmental problem that is, at best, difficult to tackle. But we can’t hope to even make a dent if we can’t diagnose it properly.

I understand that this is only a casual analysis. But I think it’s clear: It’s not fog. It’s smog.

And we’re all to blame.

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