By Taruni Kumar
The Indian cricket team, on 3 December, played its third and concluding Test match of the series against Sri Lanka. According to a report in The Guardian, the Sri Lankan coach said players were coming off the field and vomiting. It was the first recorded incident of an international match being interrupted because of Delhi’s toxic smog. But, the Indian team came away thinking that the Sri Lankan cricket team was being dramatic as the latter’s players struggled to breathe and play through Delhi’s hazardous haze of pollution. India’s bowling coach Bharat Arun used skipper Virat Kohli as an example, saying, “Virat batted close to two days, he didn’t need a mask.”
But according to medical professionals and environmentalists, everyone living and breathing Delhi’s air right now, definitely needs a mask. That includes Kohli.
The cavalier way in which Arun dismissed the smog in which the Test match was played is par for the course in an environment where ‘chalta hai, hum bhi toh suffer kar rahein hai na?’ seems standard reasoning.
Instead of simply dealing with the pollution, because he can, Kohli and his bowling coach could have used the opportunity to make a case for anti-pollution measures. Instead, they said the pollution affected Sri Lankan players disrupted their concentration.
It isn’t just Delhi’s attitude towards its air. Bengaluru’s unofficial slogan of ‘adjust maadi’ in the face of flooding, incessant traffic snarls and potholes that have actually led to the death of people is another example. And how can one forget Mumbai, the city touted as the gold standard for its ‘spirit’ and ‘resilience’.
But in all these cases, it’s the man or woman on the street who is usually most affected. The person whose daily commute involves walking and taking public transport, or workers whose jobs keep them outdoors all day bear the brunt of the city’s infrastructural inadequacies and pollution. These are the people who have neither the option to just move to a new city, nor the political or economic clout to make their lives easier in trying times. So, they deal with it and that ends up being labelled resilience and spirit.
The Indian team’s reaction to the Sri Lanka match plays into the low standards that the people of India seem to have set for themselves. We expect little by way of improvement in our environment and infrastructure and inexplicably pride ourselves on the idea that those who complain are somehow less capable of handling the situation than us. This time, the privileged men of the Indian cricket team are the ones who’ve come out and said, ‘if we can deal with it, why can’t you?’ But the question to really ask is why should anyone have to deal with it at all?
Delhi’s air problems aren’t going anywhere without serious and immediate action. A day after the Sri Lanka team couldn’t handle the city’s air, The Indian Express reported that the city’s Air Quality Index (AQI) was recorded to be 365 which is classified as “very poor”. Monday and Tuesday were expected to be even worse.
An advisory issued by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) says that exposure to very poor air quality for prolonged duration can lead to respiratory illnesses. Is this the moment to stand up and be counted as ‘manly’ for breathing in vast clouds of toxic fumes and still being able to function? Or is that just putting the toxic back in toxic masculinity?
Most cities have traffic but Bengaluru’s traffic is special. The BBC carried a piece in 2016 asking the question, ‘Why is Bangalore stuck in traffic jams?’ Why, indeed? The piece concludes that the rapid and unplanned growth of the city is the root cause. The population of Bengaluru has doubled but the infrastructure has failed to keep up.
Aside from traffic, this also reflects in the flooding that overtook the lower lying areas of the city in September. Then, there are the potholes. In October, The Hindu reported that the BBMP ‘revealed’ that the city has 15,935 potholes. Also in October, Bengaluru’s potholes led to the deaths of 4 people. How much is the city meant to ‘adjust maadi‘? No nationalistic chest thumping about being the IT city that the world turns to can hide the ground realities that the citizens of the city face.
‘What Mumbai Spirit?’ screams the headline of a 2011 article in The New Yorker. It speaks of the city’s growing apathy towards terror strikes because of their regularity. It also mentions people’s realisation that the much hailed ‘spirit of Mumbai’ was being used by politicians and elected officials to not put in the work that the city required to be safer and more livable.
The same logic applies to its ever present infrastructural woes. While the word ‘spirit’ is repeatedly used to disguise what is actually collective suffering in the face of inaction from policymakers and decision takers, Mumbaikars are finally tired of it. In August, during the rains, India Today spoke to people from the city who said they were done with politicians invoking the term spirit to hide their failures. Even Faking News played on the people’s disillusionment by running the headline, “We won’t pay tax, will only show Mumbai spirit: Mumbaikars.”
They say what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. But we can’t wait another decade or more for the situation to worsen and for that strength to devolve into panic. Virat Kohli and team need to up their standards and expect better playing conditions. The citizens of India’s most populous cities need to stop just getting by, and the politicians they elect need to work towards doing their jobs more efficiently.
It’s past time to stop hiding behind old narratives of nationalism, masculinity and ‘spirit’ and take a cue from the brand tagline of a well-known phone manufacturer — never settle.
Co-published with Firstpost