Holi celebrates the triumph of good over evil. Let us unite at Holi to slay the evil of air pollution

Co-Written by Amita Basu and Shilpi Bhardwaj


    One of the countless Holika pyres dotting the Allahabad cityscape before Holi

Amid growing environmental awareness, government has recently targeted Diwali fireworks. Laws on manufacture, sale and hours of use have been passed, altered, flouted and forgotten. But public awareness is growing: pockets of concerned young people are boycotting fireworks and lobbying for  sterner regulation. But festive air pollution doesn’t end with Diwali. The land of a thousand festivals offers many less-obvious but important case-studies of pollution linked with religious festivity. Around the corner is Holi. No, we are not talking about gulaal here. Yes, these neon-bright powders rich in heavy metals and inhalable particulate matter (PM) do damage the skin and the respiratory system, and also stick around in dry air for days. But for now, we are still talking about pyrotechnics. Around the country citizens are preparing to set alight Holika pyres on the eve of Holi. The origins of this ritual symbolise the triumph of good over evil. But the practice risks our most vulnerable fellow-creatures and is a blot on the face of India Shining.

Throughout north India, tens of thousands of pyres are erected every year in cities and villages to burn Holika in effigy. Wood is the foundation of these bonfires. Wood illegally chopped, or waste-wood. (The Telegraph estimated that, in 2015 in Jharkhand alone, Holika pyres consumed 49,000 tonnes of wood.) Onto these wooden pyres rising at street-crossings, passersby toss any rubbish at hand. Absent rubbish-bins in public spaces, the Holika pyre becomes a novel receptacle begging to be filled. Community-minded citizens oblige. In the days leading up to Holi, plasic cartons, household and commercial rubbish and used tyres flesh out the wooden skeleton.

Burning wood releases massive amounts of carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas, as well as carbon monoxide, benzene and formaldehyde, and PM (’soot’, the main constituent of visible smog). With rubber and plastic tossed into the mix, Holika pyres release an extravaganza of toxic chemicals. Chief among these are dioxins, hydrochloric acid, sulphur dioxide, and yet more PM. The fumes from a Holika pyre are potent. In the short term, they cause dizziness and cardiovascular distress. With chronic exposure to such pyres and other sources, these fumes can cause heart disease, reproductive issues,  respiratory failure and cancer.

Given that sending up in flames – whether onsite or at landfills – is already the main rubbish-disposal system in India, the Holika pyre simply offers one more slowly-growing rubbish-heap that will go up in flames. So why target one specific religious  celebration? Not because we want to be controversial. But because, as a wasteful embodiment of important communal values, Holika pyres beg us to seize the day the and clean up the air.

Irony aside, we cannot fault our fellow-citizens. Basic awareness about the health effects of pollution is appallingly low in India. For a poor country lacking infrastructure, burning is in fact a quick, cheap means of disposing rubbish. Once the pile of dried leaves, food, paper, household medical waste, plastic, and rubber goes up in flames, the ordinary citizen would declare (if he had the leisure to consider the matter) that the rubbish has vapourised. You and I recall enough school physics to know that matter doesn’t just disappear – rubbish on land, burned, turns to gigatons of PM, greenhouse gases, dioxins, and other toxins warming up the earth and poisoning our blood. Living in one of the most polluted cities in India, we’re routinely surprised when people innocently remark, ‘Dust? What dust? Allahabad is a small city, a holy city, a clean city. What you’re seeing is just river-slit from the Sangam. That is natural. That can’t hurt you.’ Irksome as this naivete is, it is understandable. Unlike contaminated water, contaminated air generally takes decades to affect us. And when anything is as ubiquitous as air pollution in India, we simply cease to notice it. We take it for granted. It’s just there. It’s happening. Why worry about it and  stress out? Cool down! There are enough things to worry about. This attitude is understandable. But we as individuals and a nation can no longer afford  it.

A vast majority of the population in India struggles just to make ends meet. People lack the mindspace to think about pollution. Or even to see it. But as history has taught us, environment is very definitely not ‘just a concern for the wealthy’. It is always, always, always the poor, the young, the elderly, women, and the homeless who suffer the most from any degradation of the environment. Deforestation, displacement from hydel projects, water pollution, air pollution. It is in fact invariably the wealthy (individuals, nations) with an interest in the status quo that loots the earth for short-term gains, who try to dissuade the poor from ‘worrying about the environment. You and I who know that bonfires are toxic – whether on Holi or any other day – must educate our fellow-citizens, and together exert pressure on the government to clean up our collective act.

Bothered by the rise of Holika pyres around the city, we rang up the Prayagraj Pollution Control Board to request community intervention. We won’t bore you with tales of out-of-service telephone numbers, employees permanently on lunch-break, and the employee who is annoyed to be contacted at all when everyone else has vanished on Holi holiday. That’s just bureaucratic business-as-usual. Nor were we shocked when we were shuttlecocked between the PCB, the BDO and Swachh Bharat office, each disowning responsibility. No. What did shock and pain us is when the official who finally consented to entertain our concern concluded, simply: ‘Air pollution is increasing. It will happen. What can we do? Cover your nose and walk on.’

Chalta hai. Swalpa adjust maadi. Jo hoga so hoga. Take a chill pill. We invite each other to anaesthetise ourselves. To ignore the larger issues just so that we can make it through our day. Yes, life is hard. But the smog is getting dense. The time has come to decide. Do we wake up and throw open the windows? Or do we choke to death in our sleep? Bhagwan ke haat me. But god helps those who help themselves. It is time for us to clean up our air. When better to begin than the festival that reminds us ‘Out with the outdated and the evil, in with the new’?

India is in the midst of an environmental crisis. Every year, the Yale Environmental Performance Index (Yale EPI) ranks nations on a comprehensive range of measures from greenhouse gas emissions to wildlife/forests. India consistently performs in the bottom of the list: in 2018 we ranked 177 out of 180 countries. Air pollution alone imposes huge costs, with an estimated 1.6 million deaths annually from indoor and outdoor pollution combined. Obvious causes of mortality are respiratory illnesses. But equally often, the proximate cause of death is heart disease, stroke, or cancer. Epidemiology and attribution science agree that chronic exposure to appalling air quality has huge costs in death and disability. As India grows wealthy (and as car ownership, among other things, rises exponentially), our air is rapidly growing filthier. Already most cities (especially in the north, which shares with China the infamous brown haze) perform appallingly on the 500-point Air Quality Index. On the AQI (published alongside the weather report, in colour-code in newspapers worldwide), a score of 151 and above is ‘Unhealthy for the general public’. In India, numerous metro-  and non-metro cities routinely report scores well above 301, rated as ‘Hazardous’. In 2018, New Delhi overtook Chinese cities to  take the prize for worst air pollution in the world. In the winter of 2017-18, the WHO measured PM counts that were literally off the charts. Every winter New Delhi goes through a show of vehicle regulation, only for business-as-usual to resume the moment the sun peeks through the smog.

As we assert our status as a would-be global superpower, the time has come to clean up the air our children breathe at home. Swachh Bharat has had real, though limited, impact on some aspects of public hygiene and community health. In Prayagraj itself, the preparations for a mega-scale Kumbh Mela this year gave the city a makeover. Streets were widened, crossings were beautified, median dividers were erected. Having lived here for some years, we can both attest that roads and public places have improved. This is a good beginning.

Understandably, the focus of Swachh Bharat so far has been on sanitation, and on highly visible religio-national symbols like the Ganga. Swachh Bharat has at least made a beginning, though its report-card till now has been a mixed one. Now it is time to clean up our air. Across the country, municipal rubbish-collection systems are inefficient, corrupt, and straining to keep up with unplanned, exponential urban expansion. Much rubbish simply gets burnt on site – outside homes and playgrounds, schools and hospitals. India needs a proper rubbish-disposal system. We can no longer accept sending rubbish into the air and out of our minds.

Like air-travel, religious festivities are highly visible resource-consumers and pollution-emitters. Apart from the days-long surge of PM and airborne toxins following Diwali and Holi, it is true that festivities account for only a fraction of air pollution. The main sources continue to be factories, domestic fires, vehicles, and open-air waste incineration. Nonetheless, festivities are both a visible and a discretionary source of pollution. Holi marks the triumph of good over evil. Is it with plumes of toxic flame that we wish to celebrate this festival?

In the legend, the holy boy Prahlad was immune to the flames of evil. Real-life children, equally innocent, are the opposite of immune to air pollution. Children, pregnant women, the ailing, the elderly, and those with existing vulnerabilities such as asthma and heart disease, are particularly susceptible to acute health effects of air pollution from bonfires of wood and assorted rubbish. As Holi comes around to remind us of the heart-warming power of Indians to unite and rise to the challenge, do we want our children running around flaming bonfires in clouds of toxic smoke?

Yes: we admit it. Bonfires are cool and pretty and a pivotal point for the communal celebration and time-marking at the heart of any festivity. But like big-game hunting, the time has come to say adieu to bonfires – a profligacy that the world in 2019, bursting with 7 billion people, can no longer sustain.

This Holi, let us gather to send up in metaphorical flames one of the biggest evils of our times. Air pollution. To honour the spirit of our great religious traditions, it is now necessary to update our rituals. Let us burn Holika on GIFs on our computer screens. Let us triumph over evil by helping our domestic help and security-guards transition away from wood- and dung-stoves towards less-polluting alternatives. Let us unite to celebrate our health and our resourcefulness in dealing with contemporary problems.

Happy Holi!

Amita Basu and Shilpi Bhardwaj are Ph D candidates at the Centre of Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences, University of Allahabad


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