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A Ferocious Heat in Delhi

Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images
Men napping under a tree during a hot summer day in New Delhi, July 2, 2019

Delhi—In early April, a fire began to smolder inside the Ghazipur landfill, the trash mountain that stands like a brown, stinking sentinel, two hundred feet high, on the outskirts of New Delhi, the district of the larger city that serves as India’s administrative capital. Journalists in India write that it will rival the height of the Taj Mahal in another year, a statistic presented with a tinge of perverse pride. Ragpickers climb the shifting, treacherous slopes of the landfill, which widens into a low range of hills; hawks, black kites, and other birds of prey circle overhead.

Landfill fires break out from time to time. But over the last few years, they have become a signal that summer has arrived in Delhi. Other signs are equally stark—fierce water wars as too many citizens in slums and low-income neighborhoods line up for too few water tankers; temperatures so scorching that if you touch the railing of a city bus you see red blister spots rising on your palm; the thick plume of dust from the Thar Desert that blasts in blinding storms through my burning city.

The trash fires send acrid waves of oily, brown, superheated smoke into the already foul air of the world’s most polluted city. Two days after the April fires start, I’m in the Ghazipur area. I step out of the car with the arrogance of a lifelong Delhiwallah, looking up at the burning garbage mountain, convinced that my lungs, already leathered and mummified by the bad air, can take it. Within seconds, my chest feels aflame. My coughs are ratchety, tubercular—a pathetic display of weakness for someone who thought she’d accustomed to the city’s fetid air by now.

A child runs past, a worn cricket bat in his hand. He looks at me with pity and scorn. I’m just one of the many who are too soft for his part of Delhi.

*

“Heat wave” feels like too mild a term for the changes sweeping Delhi, much of northern India, and Europe. You expect a hot spell to come and go, but the blistering furnace of this summer is a steady assault on the senses, testing health and sanity. I taste dust in the fiery air, dust at the back of my throat; a thick fur of brown dust coats the windows and peels like fungus off the air conditioner filters, no matter how often you clean them.

On the last day of April, the temperature reached 113 degrees Fahrenheit, the first time in almost fifty years that the city had seen that kind of heat; on June 9, the government issued a red alert, as the mercury reached 118 degrees. At that temperature, your eyes feel sandblasted, your skin feels on fire, the water is hot from the tap, and the leaves on the neem and amaltas trees wither and shrivel.

The worst-affected of the city’s 1.98 million population are those in jobs far from the luxuries of air-conditioning or ceiling fans—construction workers, clerks who cycle for miles to their offices, delivery boys, the women who run pavement stalls. At least 100 deaths across the country have been attributed to the heat, and city hospitals have seen a spike in emergency room visits, mostly for heat stroke, severe dehydration, and lung problems—with parts of the country potentially becoming too hot to be inhabitable.

Ram Bilas, the foreman of an office construction project in the satellite city of Noida, says the heat this year is beyond anything he’s experienced in his thirty-odd years on the job. “The boys can’t even stand upright after a few hours in this kind of heat, but the maliks—bosses—won’t understand this. They say the work must be completed on schedule,” he says. How do the men manage? He shrugs. “The stomach can’t go empty. They work.”

With the heat, drought has swept large parts of northern and central India this year. The state of Gujarat is suffering its worst dry spell in thirty years, and entire villages are emptying out in neighboring Maharashtra to the south, as farmers become water scarcity migrants. And forest fires have raged uncontrolled across the mountainous states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. This year, Chennai, India’s sixth largest city, ran out of water. In many areas, residents waited for hours to draw a few buckets of water from tankers, hospitals struggled to treat patients, several schools and restaurants shut down, and firms asked employees to work from home as office areas ran dry. The expected monsoon cannot come soon enough, but climate change is in our faces, no matter how we might try to ignore it.

In Delhi, the dry heat is ferocious, slowing everyone down so that we move around the city like deep-sea divers. A dust storm swirling in from the Thar Desert will briefly lower temperatures by blocking the sun, but it fills the streets with such heated yellow clouds that I refuse to look up the AQI, the online Air Quality Indicator, which usually travels between poor, very poor, and hazardous. At “very poor,” the AQI level of 301-400 in May, fine pollution particles in the air were about five times the normal level. Denial is a time-tested survival tactic if you live in Delhi, with its constant round of parties, weddings, and concerts serving as a distraction for the affluent.

In the older parts of the city, residents still put out shallow earthenware bowls of water for birds, squirrels, stray dogs, who arrive by the dozens, heat-dazed and dust-blackened. The newer neighborhoods on the outskirts, gated concrete boxes where young corporate and tech workers share space with well-off retirees, have turned away from this old tradition of kinship in a time of collective suffering. They wall themselves in with air-conditioners and air purifiers, pollution masks embellished with Swarovski crystals, the latest water purifiers, and smart fridges with auto ice-makers.

The monsoon is late this year. We turn our eyes to the sky every evening, fastening our hopes for relief to the tiniest shred of cloud, the faintest hint of humidity. In Kiran Desai’s 1998 novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, one of the characters had an inventive solution for bringing on delayed monsoons: “Vermaji of the university invented a giant fan which he hoped would attract the southern monsoon clouds by creating a wind tunnel moving north toward the Himalayas, and he petitioned the Electricity Supply Board for enough power to test it.”

But there is no Vermaji, no giant fan, no magical solution, and climate change was, incredibly, not even a side issue in the country’s recent elections. It can be dangerous to question the flood of often rash development that threatens the country’s remaining forests, wetlands, and rivers—as environmental activists, human rights lawyers, and non-profit organizations in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi are discovering to their cost. Some have been branded “anti-national,” and many have been harassed, prevented from leaving the country, or even put in jail. A green party with the political clout to force the government to put climate change on the agenda is a distant dream.

*

As Europe broiled in its own heat wave, with temperatures exceeding 114 degrees in France and forest fires burning a terrifying path across Spain, I thought of warnings ignored and the price of human recklessness. In 2000—almost twenty years ago—the journalist William Langewiesche passed through Delhi while researching a story about something else entirely. Presciently, though, he wrote:

To me it was the pollution in New Delhi that seemed apocalyptic. The streams were dead channels trickling with sewage and bright chemicals, and the air on the streets was barely breathable. In the heat of the afternoons a yellow-white mixture hung above the city, raining acidic soot into the dust and exhaust fumes.… Yet New Delhi was bursting its seams, because newcomers from rural India kept flooding in.

The children of the poor have paid the price, filling hospital beds then and now. The rich and the rising middle class shrug off talk of pollution and climate change. In 2015, many Indians responded with anger and injured patriotic pride when Gardiner Harris, then the outgoing South Asia correspondent for The New York Times, wrote a chilling report on Delhi’s terrible air quality; “nearly half of the city’s 4.4 million schoolchildren have irreversible lung damage from the poisonous air,” he wrote.

Over the next few years, the pollution haze, once a winter problem, has become a year-round crisis. Living in Delhi through the summer is to live in a toxic cauldron, to feel the twin hammer blows of pollution and asphyxiating heat. The very old and the very young are most at risk, battling an almost constant sense of exhaustion and weakened health.

The affluent have already adjusted. The billionaires have their “golden visas,” residence permits that allow them to claim citizenship in some European countries if they have made substantial enough investments in property or businesses. Some wealthy families switch capitals for the summer, shifting to various bases in Europe in much the same way that the British used to shift to hill stations in the days of the Raj. The merely rich have bought second homes in states like Goa, which has its own looming development crisis but a far better climate and the alleviating effect of being by the sea. The modestly well-off cope by renting places for their summer escape, or they leave in hordes for the hills of the Indian states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.

But this June, anyone trying to escape Delhi found themselves in gridlock on those winding mountain roads, stuck for hours in traffic jams on the way to Manali, a popular destination in Himachal Pradesh. Temperatures even in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh topped 104 degrees, hitting as high as 113 degrees in a few places. These parts of the Himalayas have been hit, too, with receding glaciers and the drying up of spring-fed rivers. The list of places of refuge and respite is short, and growing shorter.

The monsoon finally reached Delhi last week, “to deluge the earth with generous showers,” as Kalidasa wrote centuries ago in his lyrical celebration of the seasons, the Ritusamhara. The peacocks who visit our roof dance in glorious celebration as the first light rains arrive.

Development is a demanding god. The government brooks little dissent, silencing questions about the sheer recklessness of the Modi model of breakneck economic progress, or the high environmental cost. 

We’ll soon forget how bad the heat was. When there is no plan for change, people have only two choices: either you leave or you embrace a seasonal amnesia. Until the early winter smog, or the next unbearable heatwave, forces Delhi to remember what it feels like to breathe, and choke, on air that sets your lungs on fire.