Breaking Down News: Hazed and confused

Breaking Down News: Hazed and confused

North India reels as smog doesn’t quite get state borders and what’s thrown a spanner in the creative wheels of Twitter

Delhi pollution, Delhi smog, Arvind Kejriwal, North India pollution, Punjab crop burning, Twitter, Twitter 280 characters, Indian Express
Traffic policemen wear masks to protect themselves from heavy smog and air pollution while manning the traffic, in New Delhi on Wednesday. (PTI Photo)

Nasa’s satellite pictures of north India wreathed in smog make it abundantly clear that it’s a regional disaster. The hot zone stretches from the Indus in Pakistan to Patna, and Geo TV reported that the GT Road from Lahore to Rawalpindi was closed. If you drove up the GT Road into Punjab on the Indian side of the border, you would see exactly the sights that the capital is famed for in this season — murky air, spooky landscapes and the sun no brighter than a five rupee coin in a leaden sky. Punjab’s schools have also closed down. And yet the non-stop TV coverage we saw in the early days suggested that this is Delhi’s problem, and only chief minister Arvind Kejriwal could solve it, if only Captain Amarinder Singh, his counterpart in Punjab, would let him.

The story of subcontinental smog has even reached USA Today, which is generally not captivated by distant events, and Karachi’s Express Tribune reports that Islamabad will borrow the electricity generation model which Beijing uses to reduce smog. Since smog does not respect borders any more than nuclear holocaust does, it might consider reaching out to its neighbour, as well. As a Dawn editorial suggested, the erratically eternal India-Pakistan talks need one more issue on the table — smog diplomacy. A look at the satellite images would also convince you that smog covers lots of areas with almost no vehicular traffic, suggesting that traffic controls like the odd-even scheme would only remove incremental effects, not the cause itself.

One imagines that ancient neo-literate cultures were convulsed every time some wise guy deepened or rationalised the alphabet. Imagine the war of words that must have broken out between the haves and have-nots when circumflex consonants entered the Indian languages. Most humans still cannot pronounce circumflexes, like the ‘d’ in ‘tadka’, the secret ingredient which transforms lentils into food. They are highly divisive characters.

But those language wars are long-forgotten, and the world had been at verbal peace until Twitter doubled its character limit to 280. Users like JK Rowling mourn the end of the 140 character limit, which had imposed textual discipline and creativity. Emotional outbursts followed, and some people registered their protest by filling up their tweets with a single string, like ‘280’ repeated 70 times, or ‘number’ repeated 40 times. Since 280 is not divisible by a square, the resulting tweets are all unsatisfactorily rectangular.


The most interesting offering of the week from a TV station is satisfyingly retro and textual. It’s an essay for the BBC by Nobel laureate Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, in which he contemplates the sweeping changes wrought by change in the last 100 years. Just three or four generations ago, no one understood the mechanics of biological inheritance, and now we are almost ready to play God with genes. How stars and planets are formed was barely understood, and the atom and its contents constituted a mysterious locked room.

Unfortunately, Ramakrishnan only hints at the wider issues which concern us today — the interplay of science and technology with “cultural, economic and political factors”. Something must be wrong if you Google “technology news” and get pictures of the latest Chinese smartphones. And the rising and falling tides of faith, which was the chief explainer of things that matter just a century ago, is the most interesting political phenomenon of our age. The scientific method explains it most inadequately.

Celebrations of the demonetisation anniversary have been marred by a minister rashly claiming that the intervention caused the Darwinian elimination of those unfit to re-skill, and that it has dealt a body blow to prostitution. Questions are being raised about his analytical methods. How much GST does a bawdy house pay? How is the value-add computed? Anyway, it is never a good idea to celebrate an event that produced distress, while flashing moral imperatives and figures of fatter tax receipts to strengthen claims. Other figures, long forgotten, have re-emerged. Prone figures, sprawled figures, clearly dead figures, and figures in helpless tears in interminable queues at banks. As celebrations go, this one’s gone off the rails, even without the critical stories appearing in media overseas, such as The Wall Street Journal, and Rahul Gandhi’s surprisingly measured oped in the Financial Times. But the very fact that the question of demonetisation is still in the news suggests that busted economics makes good politics. But we knew that ages ago.