When Air is Inhuman, To Fix is Divine

India Personal Writings

Mumbai           Off and on over the years, I’ve stayed at the Emerald on Juhu Beach in Mumbai, and for a couple of nights before our staff and board meetings this weekend, I am again.  In my absence in recent years, they’ve had a bit of an upgrade in some areas.  Internet now comes to the room.  They have a screen over the back patio to keep the birds from pecking at you, which is especially important, because that’s where breakfast is now served.  Gone are the days when each guest was able to get a fresh masala omelet and brewed coffee while reading the local papers in English or Hindi, which are big losses, not that that’s enough to keep me away.  The real attraction hasn’t changed, and that’s the location, a short walk from Juhu Beach.  Mumbai is a New Orleans hot and humid megacity, but I’ve found walking along the beach before dawn and in the evening breeze an elixir on my India tours of duty.

Last night, I joined the swarms seeking similar relief.  There were new features joining the crush of hawkers, gawkers, and occasional swimmers.  Motorboats gave rides in the waves.  There was something like a huge merry-go-round seating a half dozen with life jackets, spinning and bumping, while being pulled by a rope from a speedboat. I ate at one of the stalls, standing out in the crowd without a care.  In the morning before dawn, it was once again more my time.  I had run and walked on this beach for years.  When the sun breaks, thousands come out, but catching it earlier is for the committed crew of homeless sleepers, wild dogs, elderly armed with short batons, some runners, some leftover teens with their feet in the water, the fishing boats right off the shore, and, of course, me.  A sail like contraption now decorates the huge light stanchions illuminating the beach.  Tractors were rolling with trailers full of the garbage left from the night before.  Women in orange vests were pulling blue containers behind them, which they had filled with beach detritus and bagged behind the trailers.  Just another predawn on Juhu.

There was something different though this year, and ominously so.  Leaving Delhi airport at dawn, the smog was so thick, it enshrouded the airplanes.  I wondered if they could even take off.  It was discouraging.  The government blames it on farmers burning their fields, but that’s only a small part of the problem, enhanced by coal burning and cars packed into the streets and byways. Mumbai, hard by the ocean, always breathed better, but landing felt like jumping from one skillet into another.  The smog was intense.  I’d been warned in Delhi, but had discounted it as little more than big city trash talk.  Here construction of new building and the new metro is blamed, but either way, there’s no getting around or away from the pollution.  I can remember Denver in inversions, Los Angeles with brown air, and New York City in the 70’s when blowing your nose left black spots all over the handkerchief.  Is it that bad?  We can all look it up, but it’s in the same league, and it’s a bad league for living and breathing.

Delhi and Mumbai are among the top ten largest cities in the world.  No matter their wonders, one shrinks before the health killing air.  Air is human. Fixing this problem has to be as important as touting new buildings, infrastructure, and development, or who will still be alive to enjoy the so-called “progress?”