Taking lessons

Infernal cities: Like London in a bygone age, Delhi has turned into the site of nightmares

Smoke and urban congestion in Britain gave rise to theories of pollution to begin with.

The idea of the city as hell is not new. William Blake, writing in 1794, takes a bleak view of London, bound up in bans and charters, where the “Chimney-sweeper’s cry/ Every blackening Church appalls”. The blackening may be physical as well as moral. Very young boys were sent down chimneys belching out coal dust and smoke, often to die early, victims of the new economy that was reordering England. Soot-stained churches watched over their deaths, corrupt and aloof.

The hell fires were to stay for the next two centuries. London and other industrial towns in England would grow accustomed to sulphurous fumes spewed out by factories and coal dust hanging in the air, enclosing the city in a murderous pall. By 1915, when TS Eliot was writing of the “yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window panes”, it had become a melancholy feature of the big city.

The bloated, congested British town was where pollution was invented, writes Peter Thorsheim. The period of intense urban growth in the 18th and 19th centuries seems to have invented urban dystopias as well. The infernal city, where cosmopolitanism and progress turned into overcrowding, squalor and apocalyptic smog, warned that new technologies could transcend environmental limitations but their consequences could not be controlled.

Today, there are new infernal cities on the map: Beijing in China; Lahore in Pakistan; Delhi, Allahabad, Moradabad, Agra, Kanpur and many more in India, all choking in their yellow smoke.

‘Not fit for humans’

Anecdotes about London’s growth are not unlike stories told of Delhi today. In 1749, for instance, an event to celebrate the Treaty of Aix La Chapelle, featuring fireworks and new music by George Frederic Handel, drew so many people that the London Bridge saw a three-hour traffic jam. And sometimes, the smog outside was so thick that busy shops needed candlelight even during the day. Does this similarity go beyond anecdotes, to patterns in the growth of the two cities?

Britain’s population grew from five million in 1700 to around nine million in 1800, with large migrations from the countryside to the city, where industries were burgeoning. Between 1714 and 1840, London’s population swelled from 2,30,000 to nearly two million. In the Victorian period, it leapt to around 6.5 million.

As London grew overcrowded, the city spread, swallowing up the surrounding countryside and turning small towns and villages into dull, undifferentiated suburbs. In the early 1800s, for instance, the astronomer William Herschel had set up his telescope in the town of Slough, where he could look into a night sky without a city haze. By 1937, Slough had become part of an industrial hinterland in the Greater London area, and the poet John Betjeman was appealing, “Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough! It isn’t fit for humans now.”

Apart from industry, railway stations came up in London in the early 19th century, with steam engines. In spite of the prominence of industrial smoke, Thorsheim points out, a large part of the haze rose out of consumption by a growing urban population. Smoke came from rapidly multiplying domestic fires, coal gas lamps and steam engines. Besides, until the mid-19th century, the city stewed in the constant fug of open sewers, bubbling with offal and human excrement.

In India, cities would see rapid growth in the 20th century. Post-Independence, economist Amitabh Kundu writes, industrialisation and investment in infrastructure drew people to the urban areas of developed states. Delhi’s population growth was more accelerated than London’s, shooting up from 1.7 million in 1951 to 16.75 million in 2011.

Like Greater London, the Delhi metropolitan region has grown through the annexation of surrounding rural areas. From 1901 to 1991, notes Veronique Dupont, Delhi absorbed 185 villages into its urban limits to become a megacity. Today, the National Capital Region is spread over 1,483 square kilometres, with a population of over 46 million. In 1991, just 685 square kilometres of the city were urbanised compared to 1,114 square kilometres in 2011.

In the 1950s, there was worry about where the swelling population would be housed. A socio-economic survey conducted by the University of Delhi in 1955 estimated that by 1961, the city would face a shortage of 1,50,000 homes, in addition to 50,000 dwellings that were so substandard they would have to be demolished. Almost 70% of the city’s families lived in one room houses, without a bathroom or kitchen. The sewerage systems had not been completed either.

From 1961, Dupont writes, public authorities played a role in urban growth, setting aside large land reserves mainly by purchasing agricultural plots. In satellite townships such as Noida, the administration constructed various grades of housing. But this still left out a majority of the workforce employed in the growing industries. They found rooms in surrounding rural areas, which were then urbanised. Besides, a large number of unauthorised colonies, including luxury housing, rose up on the peripheries. Now, thousands of people commute every day from the edges of this thickening urban mass to the city centre for work.

Like London earlier, the skies above Delhi may be clouded by the vapours of consumption more than industrial production. As Nilanjan Ghosh notes, the transport sector contributed 72% of Delhi’s pollution in 2001 while the industrial sector accounted for 20% and the domestic sector 8%. Particulate matter, the great villain of Delhi’s smog, comes from power stations and industrial processes, but also from fuel combustion, construction, diesel vehicle exhausts, re-suspended road dust and the burning of domestic refuse.

The Great Smog of 1952 engulfed London for days and is believed to have killed 12,000 people.
The Great Smog of 1952 engulfed London for days and is believed to have killed 12,000 people.

‘Fog everywhere’

In spite of Blake’s nightmarish vision, great plumes of coal smoke spreading over London were once looked upon with quiet pride, the sign of progress and prosperity. Perhaps not unlike how industrial skylines in India are celebrated as proof that the pistons of development are still moving.

Until the mid-19th century, writes Thorsheim, coal smoke was even seen as an antidote to miasma, poisonous biological gases believed to cause death and disease. But with the conceptual disappearance of miasma, theories of pollution began to swirl around with smoke. Why this transition? Probably because by the 1850s, the air quality had become unbearable, Thorsheim surmises.

England was getting used to “pea soupers”, a fog that was mostly yellow from sulphur although it could shade into orange, rust and brown. It was so thick you might even swallow it. From the 19th century and well into the 20th, London would see apocalyptic events. In the 1850s, fumes rising from the Thames would create the Great Stink of London and corrosive showers would lead scientists to coin the phrase “acid rain”.

This was also the age that coined the word smog. Sulphurous mists descended upon London in 1873, 1880 and 1892, killing hundreds. In the century that followed, the mists would grow even more deadly, culminating in the Great Smog of 1952, which engulfed the city for days and is believed to have killed 12,000 people. It led to the Clean Air Act of 1956, which finally put out coal fires in English homes. But literature had expressed a sense of foreboding much earlier.

A scene from Bleak House.
A scene from Bleak House.

Already in the early 19th century, travellers approaching London would be filled with a mix of terror and awe. Thomas De Quincey, wandering the streets in a gin-sodden, opium-wreathed haze, would mix with its miserable working poor. By 1853, the promise of the teeming, industrial city was turning, quite literally, to ash.

Charles Dickens’s Bleak House opens with lines that have become an epitaph to the industrial age: “flakes of soot” which mourn the “death of the sun” and “fog everywhere”, snaking down the river and rolling “defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city”.

The smoke would reach other urban centres, to Coketown of Hard Times, a thinly fictionalised version of Manchester, ruled by ruthless utilitarians. It would fuel industrial unrest in Elizabeth Gaskell’s version of Manchester, the cold town of Milton. In Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies, young chimney sweepers drowned to escape into other worlds.

The smog produced enervated urban populations prone to weaknesses such as alcoholism, fainting, early death, labour strikes. It also conjured up monsters. Jack the Ripper always emerges from the fog, no matter how many historical records assert that he killed on clear nights. And Sherlock Holmes pursues disappearing figures down smokey alleys and dockyards.

New spectres

Pollution turned cities into hell for the mind and hell for the body. Among other effects that were being written about in the late 1800s was the separation of the rich, who could afford to move to breezier climes, from the poor, who rotted in slums and sooty furnaces. Add to that the terrifying prospect of scarcities, of water, shelter and energy. Many tracts began to speak of deserted cities.

These are conversations that haunted Indian cities, especially Delhi, this week. The Capital has long featured among the world’s most polluted cities, and its residents remember a time in the 1980s when dense black automobile fumes would choke commuters.

An intense period of urbanisation in the 1970s appears to have stirred a new consciousness about its environmental hazards. The Air (Prevention and Pollution Control) Act of 1981 and the Environment (Protection) Act of 1986 tried to control automobile and industrial fumes. Mass emission norms for both petrol and diesel vehicles were first articulated in the early 1990s, though they would take some years to implement.

In the public imagination, Delhi seemed to fluctuate between the aspirational “world class” megacity and the polluted inferno, infested with crime and corruption. Over the last decade or so, the first image seemed to dominate public policies. By the early 2000s, the city saw a host of new malls rise up. In 2010, it was the city of the Commonwealth Games, for which flyovers were built, new apartments constructed along the Yamuna and beggars cleared from streets. In 2016, the banks of the Yamuna would be the site of a massive Art of Living festival that is believed to have caused lasting damage to the floodplains.

This week, though, gave rise to new spectres. The city floated in its own particular brew, possibly more curry than pea soup. Vague faces in masks wafted through the fog, like survivors of a nuclear holocaust, like characters in an HG Wells novel. This week, Delhi completed its descent into hell.

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