Nirmal Kaur

I’m from Punjab, and I’m a Sikh… I grew up in Bangalore and I studied in Delhi and now I work in Delhi. I’ve been here for two years now, but I was here four years before that. I went to college in Delhi from 2001-2004 when we were still building all our flyovers which have now made accessibility much better, but the whole city was under construction. It was an absolute nightmare because, as you can see, the traffic is great. But I think Delhi is also a city which knows it’s being done to improve, so that life gets better, so everyone sucks it up and accepts it.

When I came back in the period from 2006-2010, [it was] the period when Gurgaon became a big hub. It’s one of those cities which has no soul and, because everybody is a transient person there, nobody owns the place. Everybody comes there for work and they know they will move out of there sooner rather than later. So it doesn’t have a sense of belonging. I spent a lot of time there when I was working with Pernod. It’s absolutely horrible there, just in the way the infrastructure is, the way people misuse and exploit that land. That’s what it’s meant for; that’s its life.

And now I’ve come back, I’ve lived in Delhi again and it’s actually quite nice. I think it’s learning to be a little civilised… Seventeen years later, it’s a lot more civilised. With so many people in one space, with such diverse cultures, it’s always going to be chaotic, but has the madness found some rhythm to it where it works for people that are permanently in it? I think so.

I have lots of friends in Gurgaon and, if you stand on the terrace, it looks like it’s foggy every day – but it’s not. And then you soon enough realise when you come out of your air-conditioned room, because when you’re sitting inside, it looks beautiful because it looks like fog, and then you come out and you realise it’s all dust particles and it’s just bad air. In Delhi, to be honest, you don’t really get to see it as much because you’re not in an elevated space in a high-rise building. In Gurgaon, you see it a lot more, but you can [also] feel it. I can’t say much – I smoke – but you can feel the air.

I think a lot of it came up last year because of Diwali. Everybody was walking around with a cough. You could see people visually taking deeper breaths. Normally you don’t think about when you’re breathing. Every now and then people were just stopping and taking the trouble to take a deep breath. But what you’re taking in is actually more toxic. We’re humans: we don’t think when we breathe. We just realise we’re short of breath so we take a deeper breath. My advantage is that I spent ten hours a day here [very green, tranquil farmhouse on outskirts of Delhi], and this makes a world of difference because the air quality here is much better. But it’s very visible. Nobody drives with their windows down. Even in the monsoon: the monsoon is beloved in India, so ideally you’d drive with the windows down so you can let the air through. But everybody’s got their aircon on, even in winter, so that’s a good marker. Nobody wants the air in their vicinity, at all. It sucks.

I don’t run. I’ve played field hockey all my life. But I haven’t for the last year. I’ve done mixed martial arts for two years. I’m going to start… I need something; I can’t just do yoga… I need to sweat it out. I’m not the most patient person, I need to get physically tired. So that’s why I started mixed martial arts.

I have to say, [the air quality] is the number one excuse I tell myself [about not giving up smoking]. Not to someone else. I tell myself I want to quit smoking because I want to breathe and be healthier and then I think about and say: ‘There’s already so many toxins in the air’, and I really like smoking. I’ll wait for another year. I’m not going to deny it’s an excuse, because it’s actually twice as bad for me. But it’s a convenient excuse when you’re trying to quit. I’ve also been smoking for just short of twenty years. I will not lie to you and say it’s only the pollution. I think living in India has a lot of hazards just beyond the pollution so, in my mind, if I live well for a short duration, and I’m doing things that I enjoy doing, even if some of them are shitty things, I’ll live with it. But there’s no question that, ever since the reports have come out on the air pollution in Delhi, it’s made it easier to find excuses to continue to smoke. I don’t think my cigarette is as half as harmful as the air I live in.

There are many layers to the society. I could be a very privileged person and say ‘get the public transport in place, let everybody take that’, because I don’t have to do it. I don’t have to sit in it. It’s very convenient to tell others what they should do or what they could do and how things could get better. We have got the metro up and I think the metro has made a huge difference. But we have too many human beings, [so] what are you going to do? We have too many human beings with very little money, and they don’t give a shit. They’ve got to move on with life and if I were to put myself in their shoes, I see it. I don’t think I would really have time to think about anything beyond how do I get my meal, how can I sleep, how can I get a fan on. I don’t care about whether I’m polluting, I don’t care if my autorickshaw or if my taxi that I drive hasn’t been emissions tested. I don’t care if it’s 15 years old, because the Delhi government has come out with a rule saying that any diesel car above ten years old is not allowed on the roads. We have millions of cars, how are you going to catch them? It’s not going to happen.

We have industries within the city limits which cannot be relocated. I think it’s very utopian to imagine that you’re going to move those industries outside of the city. People have formed their homes and bases around it. Then even if you move them, it’s more expensive for them to find better machinery or systems that don’t pollute the air. So I understand the government’s going to give them stuff for free to encourage them. They’re not going to change it. Everybody in India is about value for money. This is the very basis of this country. If you don’t show them value, they’re not going to do it. There’s a small percentage who will do it. That’s the privileged few and the elite are too small a section of society. And they contribute in a different way because we have six cars at home. Our air conditioners are on all the time, our offices have air conditioners on all the time, so [claps hands].

We still run generators, we run diesel based generators, we have kerosene-based street vendors and these are the ones where you and I are exposed directly. I’m standing next to a generator. It’s one thing to have air that’s polluted because of the larger factories but then there are millions and millions of small set-ups. You go to near the old Delhi railway station and there’s this old road called Paharganj, everybody is running on generators. That small generator when you cross by, that direct impact of when it comes out, I don’t know how that can be solved and why do people do it. Because there are sometimes ten people in one room and that’s the only way they can afford to have electricity so they’re going to turn a diesel generator on. According to me, the problem is just our pure population. We need to stop reproducing. For at least twenty years, as a starting point

If everybody started doing small things, like, transportation being used and people stop buying SUVs for example – if everybody started looking at the green landscape that they have around their homes, on their terraces, balconies, in their homes, if you could bring a little bit of adding the greens, it makes a big difference. On a hot day, if you walk under the trees, it’s beautiful. You don’t even feel the sun and this doesn’t require education. It just requires you to be a little bit more observant of your environment. I think if everybody just starts doing that, they will reduce a lot of the toxins in the air. I think we need to move out all our small-scale industries which create a lot of pollutants. Delhi is already working on a better electricity programme so, if there are no power cuts, there’s no need for a generator. I think there’s a huge requirement for the trucks and buses to be upgraded and there has to be an expiry date saying five years, ten years. They’re done. Those engines are not equipped to exist any more, there’s no point only changing private cars. The trucks that come through the city are the highest contributors of emissions because those are twenty-year-old machines that are used by private transport operators who are not going to change it until the truck dies and it’s a machine which you can keep fixing and we are Indian! We love jugaad (innovative fix or work around), we fix one nut here, we fix two nuts there – it’s continuous. It has other implications too: I’ve had a horrible accident with one of them.

I don’t think one thing in isolation can do it. I don’t know if it’s necessarily education. But if there’s awareness along with solutions [and] the value [is] proved to people beyond – because, for the majority of the people – better quality air comes after food, after shelter, after my kids having a school to go to, or whatever… There has to be some economical benefit for them to want to change that habit. It’s a privilege to want good air today. Unfortunately, while it is a necessity, for the masses it’s not a necessity. They don’t see it like that. We still have Diwali crackers! We love them; we burst them all the time. Think about it. And it’s not just the under-privileged, I can take you to colonies in Delhi where you have the rich and fancy who have access to all the information and knowledge, and they have biggest crackers of them all. I think there has to be six or seven steps, six or seven interventions that have to be taken simultaneously to make a difference, I don’t think any one thing in isolation can move the needle. When we look at human health, you start taking multivitamins and give it a year and then you see the progress it makes. So with one month of odd-even cars you’re not going to change anything, but do you need to do that? Absolutely yes. And along with that, if you have six or seven interventions running simultaneously, I think they’d be able to make a substantial impact, that can then be shared with people to say; listen, this is the difference it makes. I think that when there’s a visible difference, people will care more.

I come to the office either in a car, or on my motorcycle. It depends on my mood for the day or it depends on the weather. So tomorrow I’m coming on a motorcycle, today I came in the car… If I feel like wearing a dress, then I take the car. I would happily wear a dress and ride my motorcycle but we are in Delhi, and other people won’t allow me. That’s my problem. It also depends on what my plans are for the evening, so if I’m going out then I will come by car because I don’t want to ride back at ten o’clock at night, which I have done, it’s not the smartest thing to do. It’s not Mumbai. It’s not a smart thing to do. Some days I wake up and I really don’t want to go to the office then I take my motorcycle. It puts you in the mood! The 12 km I ride to reach here, by the time I arrive I’m a happier person…

I could take a metro, there’s a metro station five minutes walking from my house and here at work… Honestly, if it was a clean road I’d walk it. I want to walk. If India could be more pedestrian-friendly I’d walk three or four kilometres a day, not a problem. I actually find it stupid that we go to gyms. In an airconditioned car, so we can work out, but we will not walk up two flights of steps. And we will definitely not do any household work because that’s just meant for servants. We are an amazing society! I have a problem with going to the gym because I have to work out, I want exercise to be a part of my normal life, I don’t want to have to make time for exercise. But I can’t do it, so when I travel, I walk everywhere. It’s only here that I don’t. Even in Mumbai. I walk all the time… I think many other Indians would do it too… We just don’t have pedestrian-friendly walkways, or spaces and two, there’s pollution and there’s dirt and by the time you get back home, you definitely can’t walk to the office: you’re going to feel shitty when you get there. So the reason why I don’t walk is all of Gurgaon is under construction and by the time I get from my house to the metro, you just don’t feel good. I don’t care about how I look, I just don’t feel good. And then I don’t walk down this road because people drive like monkeys on the road and I really it’s the worst possible way to die is in a road accident. It’s such a pitiful way to die.

I wish I could cycle. We even discussed and said that we could make that room into a changing room. In this place we have it, but I can’t cycle and even if I was brave enough to get on it and come, people drive like such monkeys, it’s just not worth it. One is to die, the other is just to be left on the side of the road smashed. It’s not nice and, if that means I’m contributing to air pollution, I’ll go for it. I’ll live.