Wheezing. Sneezing. Coughing. Dying.

If you look up the definition of privilege you will a definition along the lines of:

privilege /ˈprɪvɪlɪdʒ/ noun noun: privilege; plural noun: privileges 1. a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.

I don’t know what comes to mind for you all when you think of the word ‘privilege’ but to me it always meant having something more than basic living necessities, more than basic rights. Fundamental human rights on the other hand to me are inalienable rights that all humans deserve to have on the principle of humanity. I looked up the definition of basic human rights and google took me to a legal dictionary that defined it as:

 

Human rights are freedoms established by custom or international agreement that impose standards of conduct on all nations. Human rights are distinct from civil liberties, which are freedoms established by the law of a particular state and applied by that state in its own jurisdiction.

Specific human rights include the right to personal liberty and Due Process of Law; to freedom of thought, expression, religion, organization, and movement; to freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, age, language, and sex; to basic education; to employment; and to property. Human rights laws have been defined by international conventions, by treaties, and by organizations, particularly the United Nations. These laws prohibit practices such as torture, Slavery, summary execution without trial, and Arbitrary detention or exile.

In that whole definition, not once did I see the mention of food, water or air. Now I’m not denying that the rights mentioned are immensely important and every person deserves those opportunities, but how can people even begin to use those rights if they cannot first take care of themselves? How can we expect a person dying of starvation to fight for property, something he cannot even dream about let alone own. How can we expect a girl who has to walk 30km away from her home to get water for her family, to also attend school? It just doesn’t make sense to me that governments are trying to enforce all these different schemes for employment and education and ignoring the most fundamental issue of being able to survive.

I never thought I’d see the day when having clean air would turn into a privilege!

As soon as I got off the train on the Varanasi platform all I saw around me was a magnitude of pollution. I know I’ve already described to everyone the trash that I saw in Delhi, but even that didn’t prepare me for what I was about to see here! If you thought that was the worst it was going to get, you just like me, were sorely mistaken! Let me see if I can do justice to what I saw upon entering Varanasi.

The platform itself is covered in trash and of course animal feces. I mean I guess I shouldn’t really be overly surprised but it was the first time seeing it on the train platform whereas it was usually outside on the roads. Not here though. Outside the train station the roads were covered and I mean covered in cockroach shells!!! There was not one spot that was bare of cockroaches. To say that it was an infestation would be an understatement! 
We had reached around 7:30am so the greyer skies didn’t mean anything to me at the time. After driving into the city did I realize that it wasn’t that the sun was hidden behind clouds or hadn’t fully risen, it was instead the fogginess that all the pollution causes that deters the sun from shining through. The first time I went into the city I could hardly breathe! I have never had use for my chunni (scarf traditionally worn around your neck) other than it matching my outfit, but here it was the only protection I had from everything. At first I thought that the pollution was just caused by the overload of cars, autos, motorcyles, traffic in general, but boy was I off base. Varanasi, if you don’t already know is the “holy place” of Hindus, which means that devout Hindus around the world attempt the voyage to visit the sacred river; the Ganges. This river is so sacred that many believe that the water can cure you of any ailments. So because of that belief people use the river for everything! The river is used to bathe, wash clothes, use as a toilet, swim, release the bodies of the dead  and of course used as drinking water. By telling you all this I just want you to have a basic understanding of what the conditions here are like. 

When I went to see the Ganges, I really didn’t know what to expect. I already knew that the city itself was filthy. I already knew that the air was thick, muggy, dusty and unbearable. Upon seeing the Ganges I really wasn’t surprised to find that the water was a mucky brown color and nothing under the surface could be seen. Fog outlines the river as it would in the early morning, but it’s not a fog caused by condensation, it’s a fog caused from pollution. Also, along the river banks, there are multitudes of cremations that occur which is the other contributing factor to the grimy air. I realized that not only was I breathing in mechanical pollution, but also the ashes of burning bodies! The air is so thick with harmful matter, that the human eye can make it out. In the back of our minds we always know that we’re breathing in harmful chemicals, whether it be from gas emissions from cars or factories, but when I’m in Canada I have never seen the toxins that are infiltrating my lungs nor have I ever been worried about breathing in human particles!!!

The reason I bring all this up in relation to rights and privileges is because after experiencing the air quality here, what people have to live with on a daily basis, it makes me question how have things gotten so out of control where having a breath of fresh air has been stolen? How has the situation changed so drastically that a reverent river used for worship has been turned into a latrine? A river that was previously used as drinking water, as holy water, as a spiritual remedy is now filth, and yet people still desperately cling to it’s prior value.

After having to breathe in the air here for the last week, I cannot emphasize enough how poor the air quality is. If I were to dissect myself to observe the state of my lungs, I would not at all be surprised to see if they had been charcoaled. The day after having my first adventure in the city I developed a serious sore throat and cough. Since then I haven’t been able to stop wheezing, sneezing or coughing. If these are my symptoms after a few days, how are the citizens of this city surviving? If I feel like dying in this short time, are permanent residents actually dying? If people are not getting sufficient air in their lungs, or clean air in their lungs, how are they able to function? More than food and water, as human beings we need air to survive! If we don’t have clean air, aren’t we dying?

So again I repeat, when did having breathable air turn into a privilege, and a privilege only those who live in the right place in the world are granted with? Lung infections are rampant here and is considered to be one of the top, if not the top health issue. I believe whole heartedly in providing every individual with the basic rights defined above, but what good does all that do if a person does not have the fundamental instruments on which to survive? We cannot remain ignorant forever, everyday there is more and more evidence being uncovered about the state of the planet and yet most of us turn a blind eye. I know I too have been guilty of not doing my fair share and it’s hard to reassure yourself that one person can make a difference, it just takes a large community of individuals to make something happen.

Everyday I think to myself “damn, I cannot wait to get out of here and breathe fresh air again” but every time that thought occurs, another one simultaneously does too. One that makes me feel incredibly guilty for having the privilege to breathe clean air, something so basic and natural. I know I will get out of here soon, but what happens to those who lack that basic right. What happens to the remainder of the wheezing, sneezing, coughing and dying masses?

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