On a clear Spring day (2005/02/17 to be exact) this is how the view looks from my apartment. Ah, the clear blue sky and the limpid glow of fresh green leaves!
Vegetation explodes during monsoon at IIT. After every monsoon, a Festival of Burning begins, and continues until the next monsoon makes it impossible to light a match. There are fairly well-organized fires every week or so on the hillside. The local people seem to enjoy filling their lungs with smoke and soot; in 3--4 years I have not heard a single person (including IIT professors) express concern over the air quality.
Some fires are built at night by campus folks and watchmen to face the merciless onslaught of winter nights, which can be as brutally cold as 10 degrees centrigrade (50 degrees Fahrenheit) in Mumbai. Perhaps I am being a reactionary and they are too poor to afford sweaters.
The smoke drifts south-east across Powai Lake, probably killing all kinds of insects and driving many little creatures from trees and bushes, and then reaches IIT. The air becomes thick with suspended particulate matter, and I must close all windows to breathe normally.
Sometimes there are additional burn-fests held inside IIT. In the pictures above you see the familiar Vihar plume as well as a more diffused smokescreen in the foreground, most likely from a fire burning around the SAMEER area. You can even watch a short video.
(Why all those photos above? The popups give you the dates. Eventually I picked up other hobbies.)
What remains at the end of a burning orgy? Vast expanses of charred moon-like surface, trees devastated worse than the Godhra victims, tracts of wasteland, dramatic loss in ground cover and increase in airborne suspended particulate matter.
It is not easy to figure out why all this burning is needed, or to locate the citizens of Krikkit responsible for this burning orgy. Indian society is famous for hiding actors and motives behind layers of obfuscation and bureaucracy, and who am I to ask and probe anyway? However, over the years, I have obtained a few signals amid the noise.
As late as 2005, panthers formed a great excuse for decimating trees and shrubs. Here is an excerpt from a notice from our security chief (who, as it turns out, went to jail):
Apart from the fires that are meant to get rid of "over-vegetation" to keep the campus clean, green, unfriendly to panthers and friendly to doctors that treat respiratory diseases, fires are set off on the hills to the north of IIT, by "local people". Apparently the fire destroys weeds, the ash is good fertilizer, and the fresh grass is great for their cattle. This does not stand well to reason, because I have seen giant fires on slopes too steep for cattle.
It would be fashionable to finish with "posterity will never forgive the people responsible for this mayhem" but the reality is, posterity will be too busy wheezing and gasping for breath to worry about assigning blame.
But the burning continues. Updated pictures from early 2007.
The strategy has now shifted to burning at random times around the clock, particularly at dusk when the smoke will not be easily visible.
Yet more pictures. The Deputy Director Professor Vasi, Dean Planning Professor Malik and Associated Dean Planning Professor Krishna Rao have been sent these photos again and again. They were informed in August 2007, and there has been no action until at least November 2008.
Another year passes, more smoke is sent up our collective ass. Economizing on comments now.
Over the years I realized that, in a country where a kid may be pushed out of a moving bus to die because he did not carry exact change (although he did carry cash!), whining about getting my lungs poisoned is impolite.