3 years

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Mumbai Notebook

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Pollution and real estate

NEXT TO WHERE we live in the city’s south, Metro work (‘Mumbai is upgrading’) starts at 6 am. That’s by their clock, which, more often than not, has no relation to other time-pieces. The banging and digging and hammering stops at 10 in the evening, but here the Metro clock, which runs really fast in the mornings, slows down dramatically, and our dreams (if we are lucky enough to have them) have rock concerts, wars with cannon fire and the Sriharikota launch site as their themes. But then, Mumbai is upgrading.

We just learnt a week ago how it is upgrading in other ways too. ‘Mumbai Grows, Pollution Soars’ was one newspaper headline. The city’s PM 10 level (that’s not an abbreviation for Modi’s different avatars, but for Particulate Matter) has risen dramatically over one year. Fittingly, the graphs resemble tall buildings getting taller each year because the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) says this is due to large-scale construction activity. “Dust coated with toxic emissions is hazardous to our health,” says Sunita Narain, director general of Centre for Science and Environment, which must take the prize for the most profound statement of the year.

Apparently—and it’s wonderful the kind of things you learn from newspapers nowadays—there is a National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) which has been set up for ‘the abatement of air pollution’. That’s national, while the MPCB is a state body (the first initial is a dead giveaway). There’s also a central Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), and presumably its state counterpart (MMoEFCC?). So good to know our governments care so much for us.

The basic question is this: Does Particulate Matter matter? Whether it’s PM 10, currently the designated villain, or its siblings, numbers 1 to 9 (and perhaps 11 to infinity), does it really harm us? A study by Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, has found that most premature deaths in the city over the last two decades were caused by strokes, a medical condition that occurs when blood supply to the brain is cut off by clots. These clots, the study found, are largely due to the inhalation of suspended particles such as PM 10. Doctors have also said that long-term inhalation of PM 10 can cause lungs to collapse. All this seems to indicate, as Sunita Narain might say, that PM 10 is not good for you.

So what to do? One obvious solution would be to stop breathing. But as experts like Sunita Narain, illustrious pulmonologists from famous hospitals and leading scientists from IIT might tell you, this may not be good for your health. We could, of course, wear masks, which would make Mumbai an attractive tourist destination. Why am I waffling? Because I have no inkling of any possible solution. But there I am in good company: IITB, MPCB, MoEFCC, MMoEFCC, NCAP and all the other abbreviations have no idea either, except that construction activity must stop. This won’t please builders, which in turn won’t please politicians, so that’s the end of that. And also if construction stops, how will Mumbai upgrade?

THE FURIOUS construction activity would suggest a real estate boom. However, when you see our newspapers bulging with multiple full-page ads for new buildings, you realise why ‘estate’ needs to append ‘real’ to itself: no one believes them. ‘The sector is booming!’ Really? ‘Yes, the sector is booming, honestly.’ Honestly?! Peals of laughter fill the dust-sodden air.

The truth is, builders build buildings, but buyers don’t buy buildings. Or even apartments. Or even rooms. So you get sparkling new skyscrapers with very many empty eye sockets staring out sightlessly. You see all these ads with special offers for Diwali, Dussehra, Christmas, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Boss’ Day, Every Day. That’s the yet-unknown secret of the success of our newspaper industry: while all over the world papers are folding up, ours can’t be folded because they are so fat with real estate ads.

Why don’t builders reduce prices instead of offering freebies and make housing affordable? Not on your life! The unreal sector’s philosophy is to make money by making everything beyond reach. How does that work? Maybe the great real estate tycoon Donald Trump has the answer. Maybe all our building tycoons want to become President of the United States.

Talking of PM 10, which we were a few hundred words ago, it has ensured the healthy survival of the hospital industry. Healthy survival by people getting sick, geddit? The other day, a relative needed to be admitted to a prominent local hospital. “All beds are taken,” they said, suggesting we try a slightly less prominent hospital down the road, which they said was likely to be full too. “Oh yes,” they added, “we do have some ICU beds vacant.” There was, therefore, just one solution for our would-be-patient. Go home, get more sick, then get into the ICU.

See, I told you. Mumbai is upgrading.

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