Winters in Delhi are synonymous with smoke. Residents wake up in the morning and find that the roads disappear after 50 meters or so, with the tops of trees and office buildings concealed. The smog is often mistaken for seasonal mist. So it wasn’t the pollution itself that was surprising at the start of November last year, when visibility was poor for days, eyes reddened in the haze, people experienced chest pains, and ash entered their mouths when they tried to speak. Instead, it was the concentration of the pollutants, which on this occasion had escalated almost overnight. During the weekend of Diwali, an annual festival celebrated with lamps and fireworks across the country, India’s air quality was among the worst in the world. For days after, the absence of winds in Delhi meant that toxic particulates remained close to the ground. The smoke didn’t disappear.
The air was stationary across New Delhi. Schools were closed, construction activity was halted for a week, and a power plant on the outskirts of the city was shut down. All through the first two weeks of November, people struggled to breathe, let alone drive in the streets—almost as if the city itself were steadily burning.
And there were fires. In the villages of Punjab and Haryana, about 100 miles away from New Delhi, farmers were setting their fields ablaze. Rice season was over; the crops had been harvested. The leftover straw had to be disposed of quickly so that wheat could be grown during the winter. Delhi’s chief minister blamed these farmers for the smoke in the city. “Fireworks during Diwali marginally added to the pollution,” he said. “But other things inside Delhi did not drastically change. So the smog is mainly due to smoke from farm fires.”
The insinuation that farmers in adjacent villages were more to blame for the crisis than the city’s residents was entirely in keeping with the way India’s economy has come to be organized. In theory, after India joined the global economy, benefits were to trickle down from city to village, but they seldom did; blame was to be admitted and apportioned equally, but more often than not, the most vulnerable paid the price. Well before 1991, the year free-market reforms were introduced in India, urbanity had deteriorated into a penchant for power and the indiscriminate use of natural resources. Independence in 1947 did not so much clear the way for decolonization: Cities, in a sleight of hand, replaced the Crown. Together with the retention of many Victorian-era laws, a system of Stalinist state subsidies and massive industrialization made sure that only one-sixth of India’s total population could flourish. Resources were already impaired by the strain of two world wars and at least a century of relentless colonial plunder. In a free republic, this process was accelerated to meet the needs of an expanding population. But the structure didn’t quite lose its imperial essence. Certain needs were still subordinate, certain regions systematically drained to support others.
Globalization further sharpened this rift. Dams and industrial projects had already displaced countless rural communities and tribes, many of which had been deprived of their traditional modes of sustenance. State protection, to them, now became a dream. The market determined not just the net worth of an individual but also his or her self-image. Crop failure meant small farmers had no way to pay back their debts. Their success, too, stood for little in laissez-faire terms: Many farmers produced food they could scarcely afford to eat, thanks to commodity trading and the pressures of a booming urban middle class. From 2014 to ’15, India’s economy grew at a rate of 7.3 percent. The number of farmers committing suicide also went up in those years, by 41.7 percent—from 5,650 in 2014 to 8,007 in 2015.