I am not, on the whole, a ‘New Year Column’ kind of guy. But this Diwali, as the world is overtaken by gloom and Delhi is submerged under smog, I thought I would give it a shot. For those who seem bemused by the idea that this is the New Year, remember that for Gujaratis, the new year begins on the day after Diwali. (If you follow the stock market, then, of course, you already know that.)

This has been a year so full of death, darkness and disaster, that I reckon that things can only get better. And here’s what I hope for in the New Year.

First: I hope for some relief from the pandemic. It is increasingly clear as time goes on that a) we still know very little about the virus and b) in India, at least, doctors do not know how the pandemic is going to play out. Take, for instance, the rise in the number of cases in Delhi. We are told that it is because of pollution (though there is no agreement on the exact mechanism of how pollution causes this rise) and that leaves us a little mystified. There are now lower temperatures and clouds of dark smoke from stubble- burning all over North India. Why does Delhi see a huge increase in cases while the rest of North India remains less vulnerable?

In any case, I hope and pray that things get better. It is clear that these improvements will not come from public health authorities or from our fellow-citizens, too many of whom continue to ignore social distancing norms and take a cavalier attitude to mask wearing.

Our best hope is that at least some of the many vaccines that will hit the market in the next few months will protect us. Both the Oxford and the Moderna vaccines should be here soon along with other shots, from Russia, from our own scientists, from Pfizer, and a host of others.

Till the vaccine is widely disseminated, let’s just accept that the pandemic will not go away. There has been too much of false hope.

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Second: This probably applies more to Delhi than anywhere else but we have to do something about pollution. As it is, the air in many (if not most) of India’s cities is bad but in Delhi it is pure poison. If the pandemic does not get you, the pollution will.

There is no easy solution to the pollution problem but there is one thing which could make a difference: an end to stubble burning in Punjab. Poor farmers burn their stubble because they need to make their fields ready for the next crop. You can use machines to get rid of the stubble but the farmers are too poor to afford them. The obvious thing to do would be for the government to pay for the machines.

This presents its own problems. The Punjab government is broke. The Delhi government does not have the resources to pay for machines in Punjab. It could be done quite easily by the Centre which does have the money but as neither Punjab nor Delhi voted for the ruling party, they come low on the Centre’s list of priorities. So year after year, we complain about pollution, but nothing happens.

Will the Centre finally spend the money? I hope it does in the coming year. And that we don’t have to wait till the next election in Delhi where this could well become an issue and tip the Centre’s hand.

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Third: There is too much hatred in the world. This takes many forms including the rise in terrorism, both in the name of religion and for other causes.

Ten years ago, who would have imagined that a US Presidential candidate would call for a ban on Muslims entering the US and then get elected? Who would have dreamt that members of India’s ruling party would praise Nathuram Godse even while the Prime Minister spoke about Gandhiji’s contribution to our freedom?

The phenomenon of violence perpetrated in the name of Islam is not new. But it has now reached levels that were previously unimaginable. The old excuse about terrorism being the only option left open to desperate men whose country had been stolen from them, no longer works.

Today’s jehadis are young, prosperous, well-educated and frequently (as in the case of the London bombers) they have enjoyed all the benefits offered by the societies they attack. Previously normal Muslims watch jehadi material on the web and then plough their cars into pedestrians walking peacefully on a pavement. Or they take kitchen knives and stab whoever happens to be around.

This is not just terror. It is madness on an unprecedented scale. Some of this emerges out of a crisis in Islam where the crazies now occupy too much space. But the backlash this engenders can be as ugly and is unfair to innocent Muslims who have nothing to do with the lunatics.

I hope and pray that we will see an end to, or at least, a reduction in, hate this year.

But no, I am not hopeful.

Fourth: I often wonder if we will ever return to civility in public discourse. It is hard to believe that there was a time when people went on TV to throw light on an issue. Now the whole purpose of a ‘debate’ is to get people to shout at each other. If they don’t make enough noise, then the anchor joins in and does some shouting himself.

And what about social media? It has made people so rude, so abusive, so dismissive of other people’s points of view and so ready to pass judgments that I have begun to fear for the collective sanity of our society.

Will that change? Well, I can only hope.

And finally: Is that too ambitious a list of things to hope for in the new year? Probably. But one, I think, will happen. The pandemic, at least will end or slow down this year.

As for the rest, well, we can’t blame a virus for those.

We can only blame ourselves.

Yet, it is always good to hope!

Happy Diwali. Happy New Year!

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