“Attention passengers, we are now beginning our descent into the Mumbai area. Please fasten your seat belts.”
I pressed my nose against the tiny oval window, eager to get a glimpse of my city once again. As the plane circled lower, drawing graceful lines in the clear sky, I squinted, surprised that the city was not yet visible, despite the clear weather. The sky below was dull grey, the Western Ghats giving way to the outskirts of the metropolis. No more greenery, but only an odd, dull layer preventing what ought to be a clear view of skyscrapers.
“Ma’am, please fasten your seat belt; we will be landing in less than 10 minutes,” the voice of a kindly air-hostess interrupted my scrutiny. In 10 minutes? But I couldn’t see a thing! The air became more turbulent, and then suddenly, as though a curtain were whipped aside, skyscrapers reared up their grey heads below us, cropping up like the world’s fastest-growing grass. Startled, I realized that we were much closer to ground than the view from my window had led me to believe. And the cause of this loss of visibility was evident – smog.
No city can beat Delhi when it comes to out-of-control pollution, but this winter, Mumbai’s skies remained a dull, doomsday grey, even during the sunniest of weathers. Peering out of the auto-rickshaw while going home to Goregaon from Sahar International Airport, I was surprised at how many more skyscraper apartment buildings had been added to the landscape in the time since my last Mumbai visit in October 2017. Grey concrete structures and poor paint-jobs made one thing glaringly obvious – Mumbai’s poor air quality was not entirely unexpected. Add to that the burgeoning tide of cars, growing both in quantity and in size every year, and smog was starting to seem like the boy-next-door, a regular nuisance. Goregaon, where my maternal grandparents live, used to be paradise on earth, with trees and forests connecting Sanjay Gandhi National Park to Aarey Milk Colony. Today, Aarey’s ancient trees are threatened by developers, who want to create railway lines and roadways through this sylvan retreat in the concrete city.
As the smog increases, it is becoming more apparent that our country needs a change of mentality and a plan for rapid action. When newspapers pointed fingers at Delhi for its out-of-control air pollution, we Mumbaikars still had a sense of security – after all, we have our own urban national park, unlike Delhi. Well, if development continues to wreak havoc on the edges of SGNP, for how long can we retain this sense of security? Mumbai’s coastal location facilitates the dispersion of polluted air, unlike Delhi’s inland location, where layers of air tend to settle and form a dome over the city, exacerbating the effect of air pollution. However, as forest cover declines, development increases, and more people have the ability to purchase and drive more vehicles, Mumbai cannot expect its natural safety nets to save it from the same issues that Delhi has been facing.
My family spent a day cavorting around South Bombay (where all the happening things are, if we are being honest), and the first thing that struck me was the endless sea of cars around us. Traffic was at a standstill at Haji Ali, and my family quaked restlessly, bemoaning the poor driving habits of our fellow commuters. As I stared out of the window, I noted the number of large SUVs and Bolero jeeps on the road. Mumbai’s small crooked roads can hardly hold these monstrous cars… it is hardly a surprise that traffic barely moves in South Bombay nowadays. It is a sad testament to the changes in the mindset of people, and to the changes in consumer behaviours. And when these attitudes and practices begin to affect our environment, our health, and our very ability to exist in the cities we call our homes, then can we really call ourselves a progressive, developed society? How can we expect our children to grow up in a place where the air they breathe is not guaranteed to be safe? If we cannot change our practices for this generation, then should we not, at least, change them for the generations of the future?
A smog-filled city, clogged with cars and an ever-growing population, its skyline blotted out by concrete walls – this was never the Mumbai I had envisioned. My Mumbai, Aamchi Mumbai, is so much more than this. We must, for our own sakes and for the sake of the precious natural resources presented to us by our earth, reshape the direction of growth and progress in the City of Dreams. If not, we may need to start investing in masks to save ourselves.
One thought on “Where Dreams Turn to Dust: Mumbai’s Winter Smog Calamity”
I am surprised that it wasn’t until this winter that I began noticing the smog that is engulfing the city of dreams. Somehow my winter sojourns to the hills lining the outskirts of the city had led me to believe that the thin veil of grey enveloping the streets early in the morning when the temps are sufficiently low is nothing but the fog that I witness in the hills.
Sigh. I shudder to imagine the winter mornings of Mumbai a couple of decades down the line.