Took My Breath Away— Smogtober at Ashoka
By Aggam Walia (UG 2020)
When Ashoka University’s representatives came to our school last year, the only question I asked them was— is indoor air purified on campus? The reps answered in the negative, almost as if it didn’t matter. Who considers air pollution as a factor for choosing a college, they might have thought. Well, I did. Nevertheless, here I am, at Ashoka, struggling to breathe. Even though I do not suffer from a respiratory condition, I am concerned about the unhealthy air I continue to inhale, and perhaps will do so for the remainder of my time at Ashoka.
I would like to begin by pointing out that Ashoka University’s AQI is moderate-unhealthy most of the year. Since the beginning of September this year, we have had 28 ‘unhealthy days’, 8 ‘very unhealthy’ and ‘hazardous’ days, and no good days (as of 11th November). Yes, a lot of us may not be feeling uncomfortable or sick at the moment, but the consequences of breathing particulate-matter are long-term. It is taking away several years from our lifespan and is likely to cause severe respiratory problems in the next few years. Even if you don’t frequent Ashoka’s modest smoking room, the quality of the air you are inhaling is equivalent to smoking 8-25 cigarettes a day, depending upon the pollution levels. I believe it is imperative that we acknowledge the gravity of this crisis and pay attention to the fact that none of us are immune to it.
Although the admin did well to suspend classes last week, it wasn’t enough. Since it was a reactionary decision, and not a precautionary one, the crisis has not been addressed adequately. What is needed at the moment is a thorough understanding of the issue, and a discussion regarding how the University can deal with it.
If we are to avoid the confusion that will be repeated by suspending classes next year, we must explore options over the next few months to efficiently deal with the problem, ideally before it is too much to handle. For instance, the University could consider the viability of installing effective air purifying technology in the existing buildings, or if that is not feasible, at least in the new ones.
An alternative to that could be to make the academic calendar more flexible to accommodate suspension of classes due to hazardous smog days. The planning of the calendar ought to include local environmental conditions, especially the fact that the pollution levels become progressively worse after Diwali. This way, we are acknowledging the reality by wisely dealing with it, and avoiding the mess that arises out of poor planning and lack of foresight.
If the University fails to successfully deal with this crisis to the best of its abilities, only the political class will be able to save us. Since the nature of the problem is so vast and complex, a sincere political effort is required to fully address it. As of now, their solutions have been limited to listening to music, eating carrots and performing vaayu puja.
If they manage to come up with a plan and actually execute it, well, lucky us. Since the major cause for these terrible pollution levels is stubble-burning, it slightly complicates the situation. After harvesting their paddy crop, farmers burn off the residual straw, because it is the most cost-effective method they can employ to get rid of it. It cannot be expected of them to invest in alternatives because of the ongoing agrarian crises, as most farmers do not have the financial capabilities to do so. This is where the politicians need to step in to provide them with a monetary incentive to enable them to shift to an alternative practice. This is only possible with the enforcement of an additional ban on stubble-burning, which the political class is largely hesitant about, considering that the farming community is a large vote bank. Until this miracle presents itself to us, our best hope is the University taking this seriously and preparing the campus for next year’s Smogtober.
I believe it is in Ashoka’s best interest to come up with a comprehensive plan to deal with this crisis. It cannot claim to be of Ivy-league standards, as it does, if it is not able to intelligently respond to a health-crisis its students face every year. We, the students, the faculty and the working staff, deserve a long-term solution because it is a matter of our health, which shouldn’t be compromised at all costs. It also affects the productivity level on campus as suspending a week of classes at a crucial point in the semester can be difficult for everybody. Since this demand for sincerely looking into the situation is not unreasonable, I hope the University understands that it needs to take relevant actions to address, and if possible, to solve it to some extent.
Image Credits- Teesta Rawal (UG 20)