Important and regular advice from the state health department ensures that we will all live longer and better lives
A man and his daughter on a morning walk at Jogger’s Park in Bandra West. Representation Pic/Sameer Markande
The Maharashtra health department—yes, it exists, despite all evidence to the contrary—recently issued a public advisory asking residents to avoid morning or late evening walks, as well as running, jogging, and physical exercise. The reason cited was the Air Quality Index turning ‘poor to severe’. This made me very happy, not because I walk, run, jog or exercise regularly, but because it showed me how so many Bombayites would be able to lead healthier lives, thanks to this advice.
I could almost picture it: thousands of residents at their doorsteps, about to step into the smog at 6 am, pulled back only by this timely advisory. If it weren’t for the health department taking the trouble of writing and distributing this note, our streets would probably be overrun by joggers colliding into each other. It would have been nice if department officials could do something to tackle the cause of this poor air, obviously, but the advisory must have been the next best thing. So, as a patriotic citizen, I asked my family and friends to abstain from all physical activity and stay indoors more often.
We don’t give the health department as much credit as it deserves. For one, as I pointed out with my opening remark, not a lot of us know that the department exists, let alone what it does. I tried to find out more by doing what most people do while searching for information. I googled the health ministry and found its website. There were photographs of seven men on the home page, all politicians but all presumably qualified to comment on health when called upon to do so. There was also a banner urging me to cover my mouth while sneezing or coughing to protect myself from the coronavirus, which reassured me because it showed that the ministry was clearly on top of things.
The ‘About Us’ section led to an error page, while the ‘List of Services’ section was blank. I ascribed this to the cultivated air of mystery that usually surrounds anything related to the government of Maharashtra’s style of working. The ‘Budget At a Glance’ page had not been updated since 2019, which either meant there was no more money, or that there was so much being done that a mere webpage was insufficient to document it all. What pleased me most of all, as I checked multiple pages, is how everything was in keeping with the government’s ongoing commitment to outsourcing all official websites to the least talented designers and software professionals in the state. It must have been part of some other plan for offering jobs to the otherwise unemployable among us, and I applauded our ministers for their effort. I eagerly clicked on the ‘Success Stories’ section, hoping it would teach me something valuable, only to find a page that said, ‘No Success Stories available!![sic]’ The only thing I learned about the health department, then, is that it is staffed by extremely honest people.
‘Do not open external doors and windows during morning and late evening hours,’ the latest advisory continued, saying we could ‘ventilate if necessary’ between 12 noon and 4 pm. This was true leadership, I told myself as I read those sentences. This was something only governments that genuinely cared about people would do: insist on them shutting themselves indoors to protect them from an ungovernable world outside. To be fair, there is a Climate Action Plan committed to creating a ‘net zero and climate-resilient Mumbai by 2050,’ which means our windows may stay open a while longer in 27 years or so. Bombayites who survive air pollution may have many reasons to celebrate by then.
Advisories aside, the most heart-warming thing about deteriorating air quality in most Indian cities is how it hasn’t dented our belief in celebrating with fireworks. Scientists often tell us that pollutants such as particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, and ultrafine particles are released during every explosion. They say this can lead to everything from coughing and airway inflammation, to headaches, pneumonia, or heart attacks. It doesn’t stop us from setting them off though. Luckily, our courts agree with us. Some of our honourable judges recently declared that they are not experts and can’t understand how firecrackers impact the environment.
Things may get worse in the years to come but I am not worried. I know that in the event of a crisis, I will always be able to count upon the appearance of another health advisory.
When he isn’t ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira
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