Last Thursday, November 14th, was Children’s Day. In every school celebrations are planned with fervour. At Project Why we had planned a Sports Day for the Govindpuri and Giri Nagar centres and essay and painting competitions. In CSKM, Utpal’s school it was the annual fete with rides and fun activities and of course scrumptious food stalls! By the 13th evening everything was organised and everyone was looking forward to the next morning. Late in the evening an announcement was made by the anti-pollution authority: in view of the very severe pollution schools would remain closed on the 14th and 15th.

I immediately called my staff and told them to cancel the Sports Day and  some time later we got a message fro CSKM that the fete stood cancelled! So much for Children’s day.

Closing schools because of pollution may seem the right thing to do as you would think that children will spend the day within their homes with air purifiers but what about the slum kids. They do not have rooms where they can sit comfortably and breathe pure air. These children live in tiny spaces and spend most of the time ‘playing’ on the highly polluted roads where cars and trucks whizz past. A holiday means more time on the street. Closing schools does not help them in any way. It would be better if the state mandated all schools, particularly state run ones, to have air purifiers and even extend school hours! But that is not the way it is. Every thing is tailored to the needs of one side of the divide.

My heart goes out to the boarding school kids who wait for the annual fete the whole year. My heart goes out to all the persons who set up their stalls and rides in the hope of making some money that would fill up their empty coffers and who see their much awaited source of income vanish for no fault of theirs. My heart goes out to all the children of the other side of the divide who will spend their day(s) breathing in more fumes.

What makes me sad and angry at the same time is the that that this scenario happens every year, with obsessive regularity. Come September and we all start talking pollution. We vent our ire. We take out processions, write articles, rant and rave. The authorities kick in knee jerk measures that have scant effect on the pollution. Construction is stopped and hordes of workers are without income. For a daily wager it is disastrous. The ad hoc ‘labour’ markets that appear every morning at specific locations lie empty. This is where skilled and unskilled workers congregate in the hope that some contractor will pick them up for a day or more’s work. Some must have returned to their villages; others huddle in circles in the smog playing cards to while away time hoping that construction will resume soon, before their meagre savings are over.The odd even car scheme kicks in and everyone complies.  Courts intervene and admonish the authorities while passing strictures that often go unheard. And then as winter passes and the pollution dips all is forgotten till next year when the whole drama unfolds again.

How long will this continue? When will we understand the gravity of the matter, the fact that pollution kills or maims for life. That children who breathe toxic fumes will suffer lifelong ailments. When will we understand that no authority holds the magic wand to set things right. That it is for each one of us to play our part and change our mindsets. This is a million dollar question.

Children’s day 2019 was a sad one indeed. Schools were decorated with balloons and streamers but remained eerily silent as not a child entered their portals. No sound of laughter or giggles, no songs or dances. Just the stark realisation of how we adults had usurped children of their right to BREATHE. Unless we remedy to this now, we will never be forgiven.

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