A silent killer suffocates the capital of India. For millions, there is no choice but to breathe it in

“I come here and wait. Sometimes people feed me,” Singh said, his voice strained from the noise of rickshaws and cars belching fumes a few feet away.

But some Delhi residents have become so used to the bad air that it is a part of daily life, they say they hardly notice it.

Others say it is making them sick.

Gulpreet Singh orders food outside the South Campus Station in Delhi.  Fight to breathe the pollution.

Choking on smog

A police officer directing traffic at one of Delhi’s busy crossings says pollution levels have become “unbearable” this winter.

“I took off my mask because I need to blow the whistle to stop traffic, but it has been horrible,” said the 48-year-old officer, who did not reveal his name because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

Exhaust gases flow from the rows of vehicles that surround it; says it is difficult for him to catch his breath.

“My eyes hurt. It’s hard to breathe. It’s not easy,” he said.

Social worker Neelam Joshi, 39, says she feels the pollution every time she leaves her home to catch the train to work.

“When you leave the house in the morning, that’s the first thing that hits you,” Joshi said. At the end of the day, he says his body seems to have adapted, but the next day, it happens again.

“In the last six years that I have lived in Delhi, there has never been a reduction in pollution,” he said. “It just increases every year. Every year we get to a different level, and during festivals it always gets worse.”

Amanpreet Kaur, 28, a flight attendant from the Rohini area of ​​Delhi, recently manned a flight from the United States and was stunned by the difference in air quality.

“When I landed back in India, after my flight from America, it was horrible. I’m coughing continuously,” he said.

Kaur says the smog is so bad that it can be seen at night as a dirty haze around streetlights and car headlights.

“When the sun goes down, all you see is smog, just smog everywhere,” Kaur said.

“It is very dangerous to live in Delhi.”

Smog covers the Indian government office on November 20, 2021 in New Delhi.

‘My right to breathe’

Aditya Dubey, an 18-year-old environmental activist, has spent the past two years pushing for urgent action against the pollution of Delhi.

Every year the city is plagued with a cloud of dark fog that scorches the gorge, but it’s worse in winter when lower temperatures and a drop in wind speed trap airborne particles longer.

“Winter has turned into torture and every day feels like punishment,” Dubey said. “I have a burning sensation in my eyes and they start to water. I feel out of breath.”

Last month, Delhi Prime Minister Arvind Kejriwal tried to control pollution levels by banning firecrackers for Diwali, the festival of lights, but the celebrations mostly proceeded normally.

The Diwali smoke was compounded by an increase in the burning of crop waste on surrounding farmland.

As of November 5, most locations in Delhi had an AQI above 500, the highest level on the scale.

By this time, Dubey had had enough.

The activist filed a petition with the Supreme Court requesting protection of his “right to breathe.”

On November 15, the court ruled in his favor and ordered the central government to do more.

Subsequently, schools were closed, non-essential traffic was suspended, construction projects were halted, and six of the 11 coal plants were ordered to close until the end of November.

Construction projects resumed on Monday when Delhi saw a marginal improvement in air quality.

But for many, the damage had already been done.

Morning haze envelops the skyline outside New Delhi, India, in October 2020.

The ‘silent killer’

Delhi is not the only Indian city suffocated by smog.

Last year, nine of the 10 most polluted cities in the world were in India, according to the IQAir monitoring network.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution causes approximately 7 million premature deaths a year worldwide, mainly as a result of increased mortality from cardiovascular diseases, cancers and respiratory infections.
Bad air could reduce the life expectancy of hundreds of millions of Indians by up to nine years, according to a recent study by the Energy Policy Institute of the University of Chicago (EPIC).

The study also found that each of India’s 1.3 billion residents suffer from annual average pollution levels that exceed WHO guidelines.

In 2019, the central government announced a national clean air campaign, with the goal of reducing particulate pollution by up to 30% by 2024. Specific plans were created for each city; in delhi, those plans included measures to reduce road traffic, burns and dust, and promote the use of cleaner fuels.

But in recent years, India’s pollution problem has worsened, in part due to the country’s dependence on fossil fuels and, in particular, coal.

At the recent COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, India was among a group of countries that lobbied for an eleventh hour amendment to the deal to “eliminate” coal rather than “eliminate” it.
In Delhi, the noxious air is claiming tens of thousands of lives each year, based on analysis of Greenpeace IQAir data.

But despite the worsening air quality, some locals in Delhi have gotten so used to it that they don’t seem to notice.

Many wander the streets without masks and have developed a general complacency towards the pollution levels.

Omprakash Mali, a 50-year-old gardener, says that air pollution does not affect him or his work.

“We work with mud and dust as a gardener, so I don’t feel anything extra,” he said. “I think the top priority for the government should remain Covid-19. Pollution happens every year.”

Meanwhile, 18-year-old Shesh Babu, a manual worker, said he “really doesn’t care” about the thick smog in Delhi. Your priority is making money.

Dubey, the activist, says that air pollution is considered an “elitist” problem.

“Air pollution is a silent killer,” he said. “There is a lack of awareness. People don’t realize how serious this is.”


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