City City Bang Bang, Columns

On breathing, in a time of pollution

Getting a device that measures pollution  turns nameless fears into numbers. Doubt turns into quantitative fact. Air turns certifiably into poison. Some illusions die quickly. Open green spaces do not necessarily translate into better quality of air. The home is no sanctuary. Early mornings, celebrated in lore as the purest parts of the day, are proven to be anything but. There is the unmistakable sense of living in a prison that cannot be escaped from. As in cancer where life itself turns against you, when the air you breathe starts killing you, the feeling of being trapped is inescapable.

The good news is that the air purifier is put to test and found to be effective. In a few minutes, the PM 2.5 levels recede significantly. The bad news is that there is only so much that it can do given the extent of the problem. After all, what is a catastrophic crisis in any other part of the world is a good day in Delhi, and several other cities in the country.

Not surprisingly, air purifier sales have gone up, but surprisingly, only by a reported 30%. Admittedly, these devices don’t come cheap, but with screaming headlines every day, one would have thought that these would be flying off the shelves at a much faster rate. Is it apathy, or simply a sense of helplessness in the face of a problem too large to come to grips with?

The problem is that pollution is that kind of problem. Unlike the smokestacks that spewed out visibly contaminated air, the pollution in today’s times takes on a more devious form. Of course, there are days where the smog is so acrid that your eyes smart and so thick that you can carve it with a knife, but otherwise dangerous levels of pollution can often exist without any great external sign. One might be able to protect oneself when one is indoors at home, but what happens when one steps out of the house?

Also, the ill effects of pollution unfold after a long time, and are rarely directly attributable to it. Barring those with respiratory issues and overall vulnerability of health, for most others, pollution is an enemy that strikes in unknown ways over an unspecified period of time. As a society, we understand the idea of pollution well enough, particularly in its ritual form. It is when pollution becomes real that we struggle to grasp it.

The very nature of breathing has a lot to do with the difficulty that many face in acting upon an issue like pollution. As a defining feature of life, breathing is literally the most natural thing in the world. Life kicks in with breath, and signs off when it stops. To distrust breath, is to fear life itself. In fact, even to become aware of one’s breath, requires a great deal of effort. We become aware of our breath either when we choose to become mindful of it, as we do when we meditate or when we have difficulty breathing. There is a reason why it is so difficult to even listen to a person with respiratory problems struggle with their breathing. The sound of a young child struggling with childhood asthma is a traumatic experience for any parent.

The other time that we become aware of our breath is when we choose to focus on it. Meditation opens up a world of experiences that we are able to access by breathing mindfully. Breathing deeply and rhythmically changes the way we perceive the world. Meditation makes us realise the power of our breath, of how profoundly that involuntary act that we engage in every living moment of our existence, affects the way we experience ourselves and the world outside.

But now, there is a new mindfulness that we need to develop about breathing, and the problem is that being conscious of the problem does not help in any way in solving it. Air pollution defeats us because it bypasses the mechanisms that we have at our disposal to deal with external threats. The body is not equipped for it; evolution has not accounted for it. The filters in our nostrils, the cleaning capacity of our lungs have been designed for a world where human beings did not get to change the essential nature of the environment that they lived in.

Human beings can handle most other threats by finding a way around them. Water, the other foundational need for the existence of life, is now routinely purified and consumed. We have found a way to adjust to our changed circumstances in this case, largely because it is possible to do so. Unlike breathing, we are not drinking all the time.

There is a sense of helplessness that pervades the pollution discourse. It needs steps of a kind that are precisely the ones that India finds most difficult to implement. Tackling a problem of this nature requires the simultaneous and very granular workings of a host of different bodies. Top-down regulation thrown at the problem, which is our preferred mode of dealing with any crisis, is simply not enough in this case, given that the problem involves so many sectors and such diverse constituents. Since virtually nothing works in the way that it is meant to in India, to harness such a diverse group of constituents and stakeholders in trying to solve this problem looks well-nigh impossible.

It does look like we have no option but to navigate this issue the best that we can on our own. Either accept pollution as way of life, or more accurately, its opposite. Or fight it with purifiers and masks. To fear that which gives life and to shield ourselves from it all the time is the gift that we have given ourselves. On National Pollution Control day, which is when this column has been written, all that we can see is a haze of our own making.