Capital Punishment: Learning to Live in the World’s Most Polluted City

A new PM (2.5) has become the centre of attention in the nation’s capital

Priyamvada Kowshik

Every morning at 8 am, 39-year-old Satyadev pulls out his autorickshaw from a nearby parking lot in Sitaram Bazaar, Chandni Chowk, and heads out into the city. He plies his auto for 12 hours, every day of the week. Even when the Air Quality Index (AQI) peaked post-Diwali to “Hazardous” levels signaling a public health emergency, prompting the government to shut down schools and issue advisories to stay indoors as far as possible, even when the PM 2.5 level went off the charts to AQI 999 (PM 2.5), 50 times the safe level, as deemed by WHO, Satyadev was out on the road in his auto, maneuvering heavy traffic in dense smog. 

“My eyes have been burning like someone rubbed chilli powder in them,” he says looking at me with tired, reddened eyes. Humein khasi nahi hoti, the work cannot stop," he says, pointing at the scruffy cotton scarf hanging around his neck he uses to cover his nose. Along with the scarf, Satyadev’s remedy for all ailments is eating a piece jaggery in the morning. “Gur kha lo, shareer mein sab theek rehta hai.” (Eat a piece of jaggery, you’ll be in good health). 

Satyadev’s home remedy may work as a placebo for him, but his lungs and respiratory functions are taking a toll, unknown to him. Breathing the air in Delhi, is equivalent to smoking "50 cigarettes a day," said a report in The Economic Times published in early November. Doctors at the city’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) warned that it was , not just the vulnerable—children, the elderly and those with compromised respiratory issues—who are affected by pollution.

Sustained levels of air pollution, as seen in Delhi-NCR in the last week, is even affecting the lungs of those who are otherwise healthy. General infections are also up. “Exposure to air pollution is associated with lung cancer, predisposing individuals to heart attacks and stroke, besides causing bronchitis, asthma and such issues,” director of AIIMS Dr Randeep Guleria told the media.

Also Read: 5 spices for a strong immune system

Micro particles, massive consequences

After the big, boisterous and noisy Dilliwali Diwali, microscopic particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter brought the city to its knees. Millions of them were sent shooting into the nippy air by the firecrackers that people burst, defying a Supreme Court directive to limit their sale and use. But what’s a Diwali without some defiance, eh? After all, from the andaz of celebrations, to AQI (Air Quality Index), Delhiites take everything a few notches higher to mark the five days of Diwali. And let Goddess Lakshmi handle the ensuing public health emergency? Because shagun ke patakhe toh hum zaroor phodenge.

The spike in this seasonal air pollution is due to a combination of factors. Large scale stubble burning by farmers in Haryana and Punjab, thermal plants spewing pollutants in the winter air, vehicular pollution, construction activities, and a city defeated by its geography and lopsided idea of development.

The result has been an apocalyptic. As the post-Diwali air hung low and heavy with pollutants it gathered along the way, sending people into coughing fits, AQI and PM 2.5 topped google searches in Delhi. These tiny particles can dodge the natural filters of your respiratory system, penetrate deep into the lungs, irritate and corrode the delicate alveolar wall of our respirators, cross the lung barrier and enter the bloodstream, and impair lung function. Prolonged exposure can also cause cardiovascular diseases and stroke.

But that is the big news. At ground zero, people are battling the immediate effectssore throat, runny nose, burning sensation in the eyes and breathlessness. “Everyone I know has irritation in the throat and is coughing,” says Dr Puneet Bedi, a senior gynaecologist dealing in high risk pregnancies at Delhi’s Apollo Hospital. Air pollution is as bad for pregnant women as smoking is in increasing risk of miscarriage, say scientific studies.

"This is bullshit, politicians have only been passing the buck. We deserve better," demands an agitated Suchir Suri, founder of Food Talk India, one of the chief organisers of a mass protest to demand clean air, at India Gate. "People are angry, this protest began with a simple Instagram post and in 24 hours, we had 1500 people who showed up!" he says sounding hopeful that citizens action can force politicians to commit to finding a solution to stop stubble burning by farmers. 

Pollution se azadi needs several foot soldiers. If the urban, educated and aware citizen has her hashtag and protest marches, the lesser privileged has his keen and practical insight. Among the protesters at India Gate were part-time ice cream vendors and farmers Ajay and Sanjay Varma from Unnao, UP. The two friends  selling ice cream to the protesters, spend 12 to 14 hours outdoors every day, pushing their ice cream carts in central Delhi. They are unaware of micro-particles damaging their lungs, but being farmers themselves, they have a view on stubble burning.  “Farming is completely mechanised In Haryana and Punjab. Unlike our conventional method of manually pulling out the entire plant with the root, these farmers use machines which leave stubble behind, which is then set on fire. We convert the stubble into fodder for our cattle, farmers in Punjab don’t have cattle, they have machines,” he says, in a quietly insightful way. 

Also Read: One man's search for the lost recipes of the Mughal dynasty

While people like Ajay head to Delhi around Diwali, after harvesting paddy, to earn a few extra bucks, unmindful of the pollution, Delhiites like Himani Dalmia escape the city when the festival of lights comes around. For the past several years, the author and entrepreneur heads to the hills to spend Diwali under a star lit sky, with her husband and two little girls . “Delhi’s pollution levels have been spiraling out of control, is this the air we want our kids to breathe?!” she fumes, expressing a sentiment every parent in the city shares.  

Pollution politics has provided some comic relief—but nobody is laughing. Keeping political solutions of eating carrots or doing yoga aside, the Supreme court's directive to the centre to prepare a plan to wean farmers off stubble burning, brings some hope. The apex court has also asked the government to arrest any violation by coal-burning units in the national capital region. 

Delhiites on their part have participated in the odd-even scheme for collective good. It has meant less traffic, lower vehicular pollution, and cleaner air. As I drove to the metro station to park my even-numbered car today, several odd-numbered license plates zoomed ahead. The parking was overfull with even-numbered cars. But after almost a week, we breathed in merely ‘Very Bad AQI air’ and looked up at the clear blue sky. 

Featured image:
Other images: Priyamvada Kowshik


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