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Air pollution in India: The silent killer that is choking Delhi. For millions of people, there is no choice but to breathe it


“I come here and wait. Sometimes, people give me food,” Singh said, his voice strained at the noise of rickshaws and cars smoking just meters away.

But some Delhi residents are so used to bad air that it’s part of everyday life – they barely notice it, they say.

Others say it makes them sick.

Gulpreet Singh begs for food outside Delhi's South Campus station.  He struggled to breathe in the pollution.

Asphyxiation

A police officer directing traffic at one of Delhi’s busy junctions said pollution levels had become “unbearable” this winter.

“I took off my mask because I needed to blow my horn to stop the traffic, but it was horrible,” said the 48-year-old police officer, who did not give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Exhaust smoke was coming from the surrounding rows of cars – he said he found it difficult to breathe.

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

Social worker Neelam Joshi, 39, said she feels polluted every time she steps out of her house to catch the train to work.

“When you leave the house in the morning, that’s the first thing that catches your eye,” Joshi says. At the end of the day, she said her body seemed to have readjusted, but the next day, it recurred.

“For the past six years I have lived in Delhi, the pollution has never decreased,” she said. “It just goes up every year. Every year we hit a different level, and during festivals it always gets worse.”

Amanpreet Kaur, 28, a flight attendant from the Rohini area of ​​Delhi, had just taken a flight from the US and was stunned by the difference in air quality.

“When I landed back in India, after the flight from the US, it was horrible. I kept coughing,” she said.

Kaur says the smog is so bad you can see it at night as a cloud of dirty smoke around street lights and car headlights.

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

“It’s very dangerous to live in Delhi.”

Smoke covers the government office of India 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 campaigning for urgent action against pollution in Delhi.

Every year, the city is plagued by a suffocating cloud of murky smoke, but that’s even worse in winter when temperatures are lower and the drop in wind speed-trapping particles in the air lasts longer.

“Winter has become a torture and every day feels like a punishment,” Dubey said. “I had a burning sensation in my eyes and they started to water. I felt short of breath.”

Last month, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal tried to control pollution levels by banning fireworks during the Diwali light festival, but celebrations have mostly gone on as usual.

The smoke from Diwali was exacerbated by the spike in the burning of crop waste in the surrounding farmland.

By November 5, most places in Delhi recorded an AQI above 500 – the highest on the scale.

At that point, Dubey had enough.

The activist has applied to the Supreme Court seeking protection for his “right to breathe”.

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

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

Construction projects resumed on Monday as Delhi recorded a slight improvement in air quality.

But for many, the damage has already been done.

Morning fog covers the skyline on the outskirts of New Delhi, India in October 2020.

‘Silent killer’

Delhi isn’t the only Indian city choked by smog.

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

Follow World Health Organization (WHO .)), air pollution causes an estimated 7 million premature deaths globally each year, mainly due to increased mortality from cardiovascular diseases, cancer and respiratory infections.
Bad air can shorten the life expectancy of hundreds of millions of Indians by up to nine years, According to a recent study by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC).

The study also found that one out of every 1.3 billion residents of India suffers from an average annual level of pollution that exceeds 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 have been drawn up for each city; in Delhi, Those plans include measures to reduce road traffic, fires and road dust, and to encourage the use of cleaner fuels.

But over the past few years, India’s pollution problem has worsened, in part due to the country’s reliance on fossil fuels – and especially coal.

At the recent COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, India was among the countries push for an 11th hour amendment to the deal to a coal “reduce” phase instead of a “remove” phase.
In Delhi, toxic air is breaking out tens of thousands of lives every year, according to Greenpeace’s IQAir data analysis.

But despite the worsening air quality, some people in Delhi are so used to it that they don’t seem to realize it.

Many people roam the streets without masks and have a general smug attitude about pollution levels.

Omprakash Mali, a 50-year-old gardener, says that air pollution is not affecting him nor his work.

“We work with mud and dust like a gardener, so I don’t feel anything additional,” he says. “I think the government’s top priority should still be Covid-19. Pollution occurs every year. “

Meanwhile, 18-year-old Shesh Babu, a manual laborer, said he “didn’t really care” about Delhi’s thick smog. His priority is to make money.

Dubey, the activist, says air pollution is seen as an “elite” problem.

“Air pollution is a silent killer,” he said. “It’s a lack of consciousness. People don’t realize how serious it is.”

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