This winter, the freezing masses of the world are to be found not in Siberia, Europe or the great expanse of the American north. We are they, here in the Indus-Ganga plain, in a populous swath stretching from Multan to Siliguri. Without central heating, or heating of any sort, we sit huddled in the tens of millions under quilts and blankets, awaiting a sun that is unable to pierce through the fog for weeks on end. Flying over the area these days, as I did on 5 January coming east from Europe, what you see below is a covering of thick white cloud that starts as soon as you leave Balochistan’s rugged rockiness and enter the Indus catchment. From here, it is one continuous sea of milky foam extending, unmindful of demarcated borders and barbed wire, over Lahore and on to Amritsar, Delhi, Lucknow, Benaras, Patna.
Only when the plane banks left, and heads north with the hills of Nepal coming up to greet the fuselage, does the fog let go of its grip. In fact, just a few hundred feet vertically above the freezing plain, all is clear. The first hills of the Churay (or Siwalik as it is known further west), and you are already in bright sunshine, imbibing radiated warmth and ultraviolet rays.
This satellite image was taken on 5 January 2001 and provided by the earth station at Dundee at 5 am GMT, which is about midday in South Asia. If you superimpose a population map over this picture, you get about 500 million people shivering under the fog.
Was it always like this? Forget ozone holes that affect a few million at best in the southern extremities from Terra del Fuego to New Zealand. The Indo-Gangetic fog must account for the highest mass misery index in the world. For this is a region mostly used to heat and humidity, not sunless frigidity. The economics of warmth generation is such that most of the people do without heat for the short months of winter. We make do by swaddling in blankets and clothing. Meanwhile, the Tibetan and semi-Tibetan sweater merchants selling mass-produced acrylic from Jullunder factories make brisk business.
Other than this cheerful lot of Himalayan people who spread out their wares from Chandigarh to Dibrugarh, the rest of northern South Asia’s population waits winter out in misery. Nothing in the world can quite compare, if you can imagine, of the cumulative pain and suffering of the 500 million individuals shivering in the Indo-Gangetic fog.
The only question remaining is, is this phenomenon new? For the last few years, we have seen unusual extended sun-less periods. Delhi airport fog-outs have of course quickly become legendary, and trains run late. The potato crops fail on the Ganga plain, and everywhere, bricklayers are laid off as there is no sun to dry the mud. So, it does seem to be a local climate change phenomenon, but one that we are not too bothered about because no one in the West has flagged it. Besides, the largest mass of people affected lives under the cloud in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, voiceless for being so many and so problematic.
One plausible cause for this Indo-Gangetic fog is the proliferation of irrigation canals and of multiple cropping. The other is inappropriately placed flood-control embankments in the plains, which end up blocking drainage rather than blocking floods. Both raise the water vapour content on the surface, and when the cold winds blow in from the northwest, the pea-soup fog sets in. The sun does not shine, and the ground does not heat enough to dissipate the inversion effect.
So yes, the unremitting clouds which have begun to hug the Indus-Ganga plain in mid-winter is probably something new, at least in terms of its thickness and longevity. People suffer.
Let the scientists decide if this is so, and after that let someone do something about it.