regular-article-logo Tuesday, 16 July 2024

Death Valley beckons

Mungeshpur’s reading might have been ascribed to an error but Delhi’s temperatures have been rising inexorably. We’re frogs on a not-so-slow fire, and we’re being boiled alive

Mukul Kesavan Published 02.06.24, 07:55 AM
Representational image

Representational image Sourced by the Telegraph

Last Wednesday, a place in Delhi logged the hottest day in India’s recorded history. The India Meteorological Department’s sensors in Mungeshpur registered a reading of 52.9 degrees Celsius. It sounds even grander on the other scale: 127.2 degrees Fahrenheit. Paatal Lok should have been set in Mungeshpur, not Outer Jamuna Paar.

I looked up Mungeshpur on Google Maps: it’s 63 kilometres away, nearly halfway to Rohtak. Delhi is so monstrous that you can drive for an hour and forty-five minutes without escaping it; the Mungeshpur instance of the city will be waiting for you, its tarred roads melting, its cattle gaunt and parched, its birds falling off the brittle branches of its unslaked trees.


For a day it seemed likely that Mungeshpur would go down in geography textbooks as a meteorological champion. Cherrapunji used to be the wettest place in Hindustan, now Mungeshpur would be its hottest. It wasn’t to be. The egregious Kiren Rijiju, currently minister of earth sciences, sprang to the capital’s defence. It was most unlikely to be as hot as that, he declared. The Met office said Mungeshpur’s reading was an outlier, likely “… due to sensor error or local factors.”

‘Local factors’ suggest some endemic Mungeshpuri tendency to overheat. The reason Mungeshpur and Delhi were sometimes 9 degrees Celsius hotter than they ought to have been this week was — according to the IMD itself — scorching winds blowing in from Rajasthan, superheating Delhi’s north-western periphery. Mungeshpur’s reading might have finally been ascribed to a sensor error but there was nothing local about it: Delhi’s maximum temperatures have been rising inexorably. We’re frogs on a not-so-slow fire, and we’re being boiled alive.

Death Valley in California is the hottest place in the world and the highest temperature recorded there is 54.4 degrees Celsius, exactly 1.5 degrees hotter than Mungeshpur’s Wednesday reading. The difference is that about three hundred people live the year round in Death Valley while Delhi’s National Capital Region is home to thirty million people.

It isn’t just the heat. Delhi, like the rest of north and north-west India, is severely water-stressed and poisonously polluted. There was a time when the Air Quality Index spiked into the high three figures only in winter; this summer, it hasn’t been uncommon to get readings of around 250 and this without the much-discussed stubble-burning that darkens Delhi’s winter days.

As capital cities go, most of us can remember the time when Beijing was a byword for pollution. Then it hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008 and the news channels were full of stories about the draconian measures taken by the government to clean the city up. That was sixteen years ago and Delhi is now more polluted than Beijing was then, more water-stressed, and much hotter and, yet, there isn’t even an inkling of intent.

You would expect that Narendra Modi’s government, which claims to be able to get things done, would have done something about these grim, interlocking crises that have made India’s political capital dysfunctional. Modi has spent a decade in office in Delhi and instead of trying to alleviate the existential threat of climate change, he has indulged his pharaonic instinct by building more stuff on the Central Vista.

Where the Chinese State used the Olympics to de-pollute Beijing, Modi used the G20 conference to wall-paper Delhi with pictures of himself. You don’t have to like or approve of the Chinese State to acknowledge its capacity for effecting change, for setting itself goals and achieving them. It isn’t just the transformation of Beijing; China currently leads the world in every technology that enables a transition from fossil fuels. The Indian State on the other hand, under Modi’s tutelage, is so resigned to its feebleness that it has subcontracted its infrastructural responsibilities to a cabal of crony capitalists.

No serious thought has been given to the existential threat that global warming poses to South Asia. India as Vishwaguru, dispenser of wisdom to the world, seems more concerned with razing mosques, raising temples, and persecuting its minorities than running a functional capital. The reason Delhi would be a useful place for the Indian State to start with, if it was serious about tackling pollution and climate change, is that it would be a high-profile way of showing that the Indian State meant business.

By road-testing policies on Delhi’s entitled citizens and either carrying them along or ramming them through, the Union government could set an example to state governments elsewhere. Any government that aims to curb or ration the consumption of energy or water at scale will have to make rules and coerce or persuade citizens into abiding by them. Since the Supreme Court is in Delhi and has, historically, ruled on local matters that shouldn’t be the business of an apex court, it’s likely to rule on the legality of these regulations with alacrity, thus creating precedents for other states and cities to abide by.

This is wishful thinking. In a month-and-a-half of electioneering, not a single party has prioritised coming to grips with climate change despite the threat that it poses to livelihood, security and survival. As lip service goes, the Congress has the advantage because it did, while in office, conceive of a National Action Plan to tackle climate change. The BJP’s manifesto starts by invoking the Atharva Veda’s piercing insight that Nature is the mother of humans. The closest it gets to a specific promise is that the ministry of environment and forests will be recast as the ministry for ecological security.

It isn’t easy to tend to the material needs of a massive, unequal and largely poor population and find the vision to integrate that priority with the ongoing catastrophe that is the climate crisis. The tragedy, as we come to the end of this election cycle, is that the principal political actors in this country don’t seem to care. It’s as if the only thing that might galvanise them into action is actual tragedy of some sort: mass heat death or Delhi’s taps literally drying up as Cape Town’s recently did. Mungeshpur wasn’t a local misreading; it’s the canary in our coal mine and if we don’t pay attention, Death Valley beckons.

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