A morning walker on Kartavya Path in New Delhi, November 7, 2022 (Photo: Raul Irani)
AT BARELY 5PM, it’s getting dark. The sun is a deep orange circle, benumbed by a grey haze that has engulfed the National Capital Region (NCR). Suddenly, there are droplets of water on the car windshield from one of the tankers deployed to sprinkle water at East Delhi’s Anand Vihar which records one of the highest pollution levels in the city. Along the road, life goes on, oblivious to the dangers that lurk in the toxic mist.
“I have become used to this air pollution. I have to come to work every day. I have no choice,” says Govinda, as he fries chicken wings in a large pan at a roadside kiosk outside the Anand Vihar railway station. The porters, the vendors and the Metro workers express similar sentiments, heedless of what the World Health Organization (WHO) has recognised as the world’s greatest environmental risk to health. But Lalita, 46, wearing a mask and waiting for a bus, as she does every evening after tutoring children, says she can sense suffocation. Mukesh, who runs a travel agency that caters to bus travellers from Bihar, experiences a burning in his eyes because he commutes on a motorbike. Anand Vihar was identified as one of the 13 hotspots by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) for higher particulate matter concentration. As it gets darker and the orange sodium vapour lights come on, the smog turns brownish, eclipsing even the moon with a copper hue.
For a city accustomed to the Air Quality Index (AQI) crossing the “severe” level at the onset of winter, as temperatures start falling and smoke from Diwali crackers and burning crop stubble in neighbouring states blends into the already polluted air and dust, it is an annual story. But this year has been worse than ever before. It is palpable— darker and denser. Can long-term exposure to pollution make one invulnerable to its health risks, as many city dwellers claim in jest, hope or belief? This is mere self-delusion. Specialists in the field of respiratory diseases say people may feel that continued exposure to it over a period of time is increasing their tolerance levels, but the truth is that the particulate matter in the air they breathe settles in the lungs and goes into the bloodstream, gradually causing damage to health. “These are particles, not germs. There is scientific proof that we do not become immune to these. In fact, these particles affect many components of the immune system and dysregulate it. Some chemicals produced by these can trigger asthma and autoimmune diseases. It is a dangerous assumption that we can be immune to it because we seriously need to limit our exposure to pollution,” says Dr Shalini Mullick, Head of Pathology, National Institute of Tuberculosis and Respiratory Diseases (NITRD).
Limiting exposure is the biggest challenge for Delhiites. It is everywhere, sparing no place in NCR. The AQI across various areas of the city ranges across the “hazardous, severe, unhealthy and poor” levels. The concentration of PM2.5, the fine particulate matter in air considered harmful to health, is several times higher than the recommended limit given by WHO’s 24-hour air quality guidelines value. A Greenpeace report has said that Delhi remains the most polluted region in terms of air quality and PM2.5 exposure. A Lancet study in 2020 attributed 1.67 million deaths in the country to air pollution in 2019, and of this almost 17,500 were in the capital alone. While several in the city live in denial of the consequences of pollution, either out of lack of choice or ignorance, the severity of the problem is largely sinking in.
Outside Lodhi Gardens, one of New Delhi’s most popular parks, Guddu, who has been selling ice cream here for 12 years, is planning to return home to Unnao in Uttar Pradesh. The number of his customers has declined to less than half, from 2,000-2,500 to 800-1,000 a day. “The weekends used to be crowded but now very few people are coming here because of pollution. And a lot of people feel eating ice cream would hurt their throats more in these conditions, and cause them to fall ill,” says Guddu. Standing next to him, another ice cream seller, Shobhakant Singh, has the same complaint. He blames the pollution on the farmers burning rice crop stubble in Punjab, but avoids delving into the politics over it.
It’s not just the ice-cream vendors. Rajpal, who has been selling ram laddus, a spicy fried street food made of a batter of lentils, for 28 years, complains that there are very few buyers. In the backdrop, the silhouette of the Shish Gumbad, one of the many Lodhi dynasty tombs in the park spread over 90 acres, is already fading against the darkening sky. Standing behind his tripod with smoke coming from a small burner heating the ram laddus, Rajpal claims he is unperturbed by PM2.5. “I have been standing here before this smoke for years. The pollution does not bother me. It’s something that troubles the rich,” he says.
According to pulmonologist KK Pandey, with an average adult inhaling 10,000 litres of air each day, one can imagine how much of pollutants, full of fine toxic particles, are going into the body. “Anyone can get affected. Ten years ago, when a patient asked if there was any need for an air purifier, I would ask ‘Will you carry it around with you?’ Now I advise them to keep one at home and stay indoors as much as possible.” Dr Pandey, who is head of pulmonology at Yashoda Hospital, says every year at this time there is a surge of patients, particularly those with fragile lungs. For some, it’s an annual visit to the doctor at this time of the year. He has also seen youngsters riding bikes in Delhi complaining of cough and burning eyes.
The alarm bells have sparked off political wrangling, debates and even memes. “Breathlessness, palpitation, moist eyes… You’re either in love or in Delhi,” goes one widely shared on social media. The wry online humour, which is ushered in along with the smog, reflects a sense of hopelessness and anger with the people as well as the political class. Union ministers have blamed the deteriorating air in the capital on the stubble-burning in Punjab, ruled by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Congress-ruled Rajasthan. The System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), under the Ministry of Earth Sciences, estimated that the share of stubble-burning in Delhi’s pollution has increased to around 38 per cent.
For some in the city, life came to a near standstill. In the capital, for four days schools were shut, diesel vehicles, barring those carrying essential items, were banned, and 50 per cent of Delhi government employees were asked to work from home. Even after these restrictions were lifted, construction activities and demolition continued to be barred. Rich or poor, young or old, pollution is leaving a mark on everyone’s life, in some way or the other. Yet, for most Delhiites, life has to go on. Pollution, after all, has become as intrinsic to the city since the 1990s as the winds blowing from Rajasthan’s Thar Desert.
“Every year we hope the next will be better, but it’s only getting worse. We don’t know which government—Delhi, Punjab or Centre—is responsible. None of them seems to be doing anything,” says Monica Guha, 73. She, along with her husband who is 85, commutes 12km for a walk in the Lodhi Gardens, one of the greenest parks of the capital that is among the less polluted areas of Delhi. As it gets dark and the pathways fade into the smog, the couple settles down on a bench, complaining of the bad air making it difficult for them to walk.
November is when Delhiites look forward to the temperatures falling after the long and sweltering summer. But autumn in Delhi has become the time when the air in the city is most toxic. “The particulate matter present in the polluted air is inadvertently inhaled by people and over long periods this, with a cumulative effect, can cause significant respiratory problems and diseases. During winter months, due to added problems of smog, cities with high levels of pollution tend to develop poor air quality with high AQI levels making them become like gas chambers,” says Bengaluru-based pulmonologist Pawan Yadav.
Mullick says current data indicates that air pollution is a major environmental risk factor in causing diseases like asthma, lung cancer, ventricular hypertrophy, Alzheimer’s and autism. Besides, it has repercussions like cutting short lifespans and complications in pregnancy, which can result in still birth and low foetal weight.
For a large section of NCR’s residents, pollution is neither a daunting health catastrophe nor a major issue that reflects in their voting pattern, with populist measures overshadowing it. Abhishek Suryavanshi, who runs a roadside kiosk selling sandwiches, coffee and Maggi at Geja village in Noida, has had very few customers since Diwali. He points at a polluting vehicle passing by and the smoke from garbage being burned just 50 metres away and says, “People should also be more responsible, not just the government.” In Mayur Vihar in East Delhi, Aryan Singh, who runs a provision store, agrees that the people of the city themselves have to take every step they can to contain pollution.
When Lalit, a youth from a remote hill village in Uttarakhand’s Kumaon region, heard a visiting Delhiite comment that the sky over his village looked so blue, he asked, his eyebrows raised, “So what colour is the sky in Delhi, not blue?” The tourist laughed. The sky in Delhi rarely looked blue. And, at this time of the year, it was a deeper grey. For residents of NCR, a clear blue sky is, as of now, a dream.