Traffic cop, child with asthma, green crusader: Meet the people who fight Delhi pollution | delhi news | Hindustan Times
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Traffic cop, child with asthma, green crusader: Meet the people who fight Delhi pollution

HT meets people who aren’t just talking about air pollution, but living and battling it daily

delhi Updated: Nov 12, 2017 16:28 IST
HT Correspondents
Smog engulfs India Gate making it barely visible on Friday morning in New Delhi.
Smog engulfs India Gate making it barely visible on Friday morning in New Delhi.(Ravi Choudhary/HT Photo)

From green crusader Bhure Lal to little Rehaan Chhabra, who has never lit a firecracker, or farmer Bhinder Singh who says he has no option but to burn stubble, HT meets people who aren’t just talking about pollution, but living and battling it daily

GREEN CRUSADER

“I keep coming... Exercise (in foul air) can’t be bad for health”

Bhure Lal, 75, Chairman, Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority

EPCA chairman Bhure Lal during his morning walk at Lodhi Gardens in New Delhi. (Ravi Choudhary/HT PHOTO)

Bhure Lal begins his day on a yoga mat in a corner of Lodhi Garden come rain or smog. On the chilly, foggy Thursday morning, there was little to show that Lal, who heads the Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority (EPCA), the Supreme Court-appointed panel entrusted with implementing the Graded Response Action Plan against pollution, is the man of the moment as Delhi faces toxic air yet again as winter approaches.

“It (air quality) seems to be better than yesterday. Hopefully, the smoggy conditions will clear out by tomorrow. What we witnessed in the past two days is an unusual phenomenon for this time of the year. The dirty hazy air we see is not only confined to Delhi-NCR but I’ve been told similar conditions are prevailing in places like Mughal Sarai and Lahore,” Lal said, amid a confirmatory roll of murmur from his fellow walkers at the park in central Delhi.

Does it make sense to exercise when pollution levels are the highest early in the day? Lal doesn’t care. “I keep coming, every morning and almost every evening. Exercise and walking can’t be bad for one’s health. This is a space to re-energise myself. I interact with people about things other than what I do as part of EPCA.”

In this green corner, 100-odd metre away from Muhammad Shah Sayyid’s tomb, many regulars haven’t been turning up in the past couple of days. Lal is flooded with phone calls both at home and work from people asking what they should do.

“Things were very bad on Tuesday and Wednesday. There was a need more proactive action on the part of the authorities. We, as part of the EPCA, passed the directions regarding tougher measures the day the air quality got worse. The agencies dragged their feet. We can’t go to them with a gun in the hand. We will report to the Supreme Court. Let it decide. I don’t know why they were resisting … Maybe (it is) political pressure,” Lal, known for introducing the cleaner CNG fuel in Delhi, said.

Hectic work schedule is bound to take a toll but this 75-year-old is relentless. “I have been travelling all over Delhi-NCR to visit pollution hot spots and meet officials. For more than a month, I have been going to the borders of Delhi at night to survey trucks. I speak to people there to understand their problems. I go as a layman and observe,” he said.

And how will it all end? “The agencies will give me technical solutions that will take care of all these hot spots,” said an upbeat Lal, before resuming his yoga asanas.

As told to Ritam Haldar.

DOCTOR

“Asthma cases have more than tripled over two decades”

Dr Rajesh Chawla, 59 Respiratory medicine consultant, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals

Dr. Rajesh Chawla is a pulmonologist at Indraprastha Apollo Hospital. He generally gets calls from patients at odd hours when pollution peaks . (Sanchit Khanna/ Hindustan Times)

Dr Rajesh Chawla is a pulmonologist and sleep medicine specialist, but he cannot recall when he last slept through the night over the past fortnight.

“I keep getting calls at odd hours from people with pollution-related symptoms. Last night, the gentleman who called at 2am had been to an outdoor dinner party and had developed severe breathlessness on his way back. Fortunately, he was not a Delhi resident and recovered when left for his home town the next morning,” said Dr Chawla, senior consultant, critical care, pulmonary and sleep disorders at the Indrapastha Apollo Hospitals.

“This is a bad time to organise outdoor events. We breathe 15 times in a minute, 900 times in an hour. Imagine what our system is going through,” he said.

He has lost count of phone calls and messages he gets in a day. “When pollution is this high, not only are people with history of lung diseases affected but also those who are healthy. Almost everyone is complaining of throat pain or irritation, blocked nose and burning or dry eyes,” he said.

His ‘by appointment’ clinic has turned into a ‘walk-in’, with patients showing up in panic with complaints of breathlessness, chest tightness and wheezing through the day. “It is a sort of an emergency and we, as doctors, must respond. I even get calls from people asking which masks to buy,” said Chawla, who has been practising chest medicine for three decades.

“My clinical experience indicates asthma cases have more than tripled over the past two decades, with symptoms becoming more severe and people taking longer to respond to prescription medicines. Now I see more people with chronic cough that doesn’t respond to treatment,” he said.

The numbers of people with chronic lung diseases have also shot up over two decades. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) was common only in smokers two decades ago, nowadays, I see non-smokers with the disease,” he said.

And the numbers will keep growing. “The problem is that many of the most deadly effects of pollution appear over time, leading to heart disease, lung diseases and cancers, among others.”

As told to Rhythma Kaul.

CHILD WITH ASTHMA

“I ask for firecrackers, but never get any”

Rehaan Chhabra, 9 Class 4 student, Air Force Golden Jubilee Institute

Rehaan at his Janak Puri home. (Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)

Delhi’s high air pollution drives 9-year-old Rehaan Chhabra out of the city every winter. As the temperature dips and the level of pollution increases, his chronic asthma and respiratory allergies get aggravated with symptoms like wheezing, coughing and breathlessness.

His parents take him out of town on short trips through the winter to give his lungs a break from air toxins. On days when the air quality is bad, he is not allowed to step out of home.

“I really like cycling, I really do. I usually go to my friend’s house and then we go out together. We had made plans to go cycling and play badminton yesterday because we had no school, but mom said I could not go out because the air pollution was terrible,” Rehaan said. “I sat at home all day.”

“I like to play badminton but my friends from the karate class mostly play cricket. Sometimes, I miss them and wish I could join them, but I can’t ,” said Rehaan.

Strenuous activities like sports, especially when the air is highly polluted, leave Rehaan tired and breathless. “By now, he knows what he can and cannot do, but some restrictions — like not being able to run around too much or avoiding sports like football and cricket — bother him,” said his father Harinder Singh Chhabra, a banker who lives in Janakpuri in west Delhi.

His parents first noticed that he had breathing difficulty when he was just one-year-old. With age, his immune system has become stronger and the symptoms have become more manageable, but medicines and nebulisers are not enough to help him light a firecracker during Diwali.

“I am not allowed to burst firecrackers, but all the kids in the nearby houses burst bombs during Diwali. My parents said no, so I ask my grandparents to get some for me, but they said no too,” said Rehaan.

The Supreme Court ban on the sale of firecrackers this year helped improve air quality, feels his father. “But crop burning, traffic… everything goes up during this time. Pollution is an annual nightmare and if it wasn’t for my wife’s and my job and our home, we would have moved to a different city,” said Chhabra.

As told to Anonna Dutt.

TRAFFIC COP

“We don’t have good days, it’s always dusty”

Bijender Singh, 55, Delhi Police sub-inspector

Brijesh Singh at Azad Market Chowk in New Delhi. (Sanchit Khanna/ Hindustan Times)

Delhi Police sub-inspector Bijender Singh, 55, directs traffic with four other traffic cops and an incharge at Azad Market Chowk in north Delhi. For 8 hours he is surrounded by dusty haze from heavy traffic and construction work of the Rani Jhansi grade separator.

“I have worked as a traffic cop at Patel Nagar, Civil Lines and Ashok Vihar, but pollution is definitely the worst at Azad Market. We do not have ‘good days’ in terms of pollution, it is always dusty. It used to be even worse, but our new sir, Babu Lal sir, has got people to sprinkle water here and fixed roads a little, which helps,” said the father of two, whose mask has turned a murky shade of brown over 15 days.

Singh is one of the 5,700 traffic police personnel in Delhi, of which around 5,000 are on duty on roads at any given time. As a part of the uniform, Singh gets latex-free breathable masks, which filter 95 per cent of the PM 2.5 particles, but many officers don’t wear it regularly.

The free health care checkups they get under the Central Government Health Scheme is a benefit that Singh and his colleagues can’t do without. “I get a medical check-up done every two to three months and drink warm milk and eat jaggery every day to clear my throat,” Singh said.

Apart from masks, health checkups and home remedies, Singh hopes that the odd-even drive from November 13-17 will bring some respite.

“It will make my job easier because there will be fewer vehicles. This will definitely help, but not much. A major problem in Delhi is lack of green cover. Earlier, trees and plants used to filter out pollutants. In Azad Market, there isn’t a single tree in sight, and construction is on. The dust isn’t going to go anywhere,” he said.

“Our uniforms are white when we start the day, but when we go home and wash these clothes, they bleed dirt,” adds his boss Babu Lal, the traffic inspector, in charge of the Sadar Bazaar traffic circle.

As told to A Mariyam Alavi.

METEOROLOGIST

“This is just like a gas chamber”

Mahesh Palawat, 52, Chief meteorologist, Skymet Weather Services, Noida

Mahesh Palawat at Skymet Weather Forecast, Sector 125, Noida. (Salman Ali / Hindustan Times )

When Mahesh Palawat, 52, a meteorologist by training, quit the Indian Air Force after two decades of service, his role changed from debriefing pilots on weather conditions to informing media, policy makers and people on the causes of air pollution.

In 2006, he joined Skymet, a major private weather services information agency, that had started only three years old. Many of his former Air Force colleagues now work with him at the Noida-based organisation.

Palawat, a Faridabad resident, has been living in Delhi-NCR since 2006, but he is not new to Delhi. He doesn’t recall pollution levels being this bad when he was studying geography at Jamia Millia Islamia university in 1984-86 before joining the IAF. “There were not as many cars on the road then,” Palawat recalled, “though some areas in Old Delhi, where diesel cars were running, did have a pollution problem.”

Palawat’s father was in the armed forces, as is his sister who is an army doctor. Now, his elder daughter also wants to join the army. “I have travelled from North to South,” said Palawat who was born in Jalandhar in Punjab. “North India, particularly, Delhi is the worst (in terms of air pollution) because normally in the southern parts there is no fog. So, even when there is pollution , the quantum of pollution is not as much,” he said.

Palawat is concerned about his two daughters, 23 and 19, who have trained as boxers. “They are even better than boys,” said Palawat, who is himself a boxer. But the meteorologist recognises that even the fittest of people suffer when pollution levels are so high.

“I am worried for everyone. It (pollution level) is just like a gas chamber,” he said. So, he is doing what he does best: pouring over maps on his computer screen, crunching numbers and keeping an eye on them. “We work to find the causes, it’s now up to the government to act on that information,” he said.

As told to Malavika Vyawahare.

FARMER

“We don’t want to cough, but who’ll pay (to uproot stubble)?”

Bhinder Singh, 35, Paddy farmer, Gobindpura village, Bhatinda

Bhinder Singh .

Bhinder Singh refused to get photographed with paddy stubble burning in his fields in the outskirts of Bathinda out of the fear of being fined by the administration.

He understands that burning adds to pollution, but says he has no other option. “Who will pay the expenses (of uprooting stubble and making logs of it)? And where is the machinery or technology?” he said. “We don’t want to cough, nor do we want accidents (due to poor visibility), but it is just a matter of few days,” said Singh, who grows paddy in the kharif season on his eight-acre farm in Gobindpura village, around 8km from Bathinda city.

The smog, he says, does not bother him as the village settlement is 2km away from his fields. “It (the smog) does not bother us, as it is the questions of our (economic) survival,” he said.

He has never fallen ill, or visited a doctor. “There is unnecessary hype created by those ruling in Delhi and the media, the smoke vanishes in a week’s time,” he said.

The field smolders for a day after the stubble is set on fire, mostly in the afternoon. “Those who say the stubble is set on fire at night are wrong as the stubble is not dry enough to burn at night,” he said.

As far as he knows, no farmer in his village has ever been fined for burning stubble. “The chief minister has already stated that nobody would be fined,” Singh said. He said farmers like him have little choice as the “wheat crop season has started”. Hiring a baler machine to roll the uprooted stubble costs Rs 2,200 per acre, which means coughing up close to Rs 18,000 to clear his 8-acre farm.

Singh suggests solutions, such as government subsidies or making more machines available through village cooperatives. “Our village does not have a single baler and those who have the machine ask for a huge rent,” said Singh. “A baler costs around Rs 12.5 lakh and if cooperatives can buy and rent out the machine at nominal charges, it would stop farmers from torching their field,” he said.

“As of now, there is no solution. The government has no alternatives and no logistics support like subsidy to increase the number of balers available to farmers in Punjab,” he added.

As told to Prabhjit Singh.

CPCB SCIENTIST

“If we can teach children, the future will fine”

RC Srivastava, 55, Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board

Dr. R.C. Srivastava (right) with M Satheesh Kumar at an Air Lab of the Central Pollution Control Board in East Arjun Nagar . (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

Winter is the busiest time of the year for RC Srivastava, a 55-year-old scientist at the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) who has been monitoring Delhi’s air quality since he moved to Delhi from Dhanbad in 1988.

He is part of a lab that analyses samples that are collected from seven manual monitoring stations at Pitampura, Siri Fort, Janakpuri, Nizamuddin, Shahdara, Shahzada Bagh, and ITO. Even though these stations existed before Srivastava joined CPCB, work load has increased substantially over the past two years.

“There is a lot more awareness about air pollution since we launched the Air Quality Index (in April 2015), so we get more complaints from people. The NGT (National Green Tribunal) gives a lot more directives, which we need to comply with. We also need to monitor the quality of industrial emissions from time to time,” he said.

When he moved to Delhi, the city was very different. “Not many people were aware of the issues and hazards of bad air then, let alone being aware of the CPCB,” he said. At that time, CPCB’s air monitoring was based on three parameters — SO2, NO2, and suspended particulate matter up to the size of 100 microns — but in 1994, measuring PM10, carbon monoxide and lead was introduced. “This was revised again in 1998, when we started measuring the level of ammonia as well,” he said.

“The latest parameters that measure 12 different pollutants, including the PM 2.5 and PM 10, were introduced in 2009. Even when AQI was launched in 2015, there were 10 stations in Delhi attached to it, now there are around 76,” Srivastava said.

“But that is what I like about my job. With the updates, the job continues to be challenging and refreshing. Also, I want to be able to work for the country and for environment,” he said.

Over the years, said Srivastava, air quality has deteriorated due to multiple factors such as rising population, increase in the number of vehicles with no proportional increase in road length, leading to higher congestion.

He, however, sees a promising trend that makes him hopeful for the future. “Children are aware about the environment, probably because they are taught about it from a very young age. I have seen children pick up random trash and throw it in dustbins. This is a good trend,” he said.

“Adults may not change their ways, but if we can teach kids, then the future will fine. If we can change the current generation, the situation may change in the future,” said Srivastava.

As told to A Mariyam Alavi.

ACTIVIST

“Pollution is bad but there’s momentum (for change). There’s hope.”

Sunil Dahiya, 27, Lead campaigner, Clean Air nation campaign, Greenpeace

Sunil Dahiya, Greenpeace activist (Ravi Choudhary/HT PHOTO)

Sunil Dahiya, 27, born in Bhatgaon Dungran village 10km from Sonipat in Haryana, is a small-town geek-turned- campaigner whose understated style is at odds with the caricature of Greenpeace activists being loud and in your face.

An alumnus of Ramjas College in Delhi University and TERI University, Dahiya counters arguments not with slogans but data and research. Initially he was interested in learning all about thermal power plants, when he did it, became clear what a health hazard they could be.

Thermal power plants are a major contributor to pollution in Delhi NCR. As part of the graded action plan to clean Delhi’s air, the heavily polluting Badarpur power plant is shut down when air quality in Delhi drop.

“I was deep in research,” he said, but “I wanted to know what it was like on the other side,” is how Dahiya describes his decision to join Greenpeace initially.

Three months into the job, Dahiya volunteered to go to Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh as part of the Mahan campaign against coal mining. He was disturbed by the lack of information and awareness among the tribals. “For coal that would last 14 years, they were destroying the livelihoods of these people forever.” It left a deep impact.

“I don’t remember the situation then being as bad as today,” he said of Delhi’s pollution in 2007 when he moved to the city. Delhi residents echo the lack of awareness he saw among forest-dependent communities. “Being educated does not mean the same thing as being aware,” said Dahiya, whose parents were teachers.

“People in Delhi see the fog but they do not readily see the sources behind the pollution, other than the obvious ones like vehicles,” said Dahiya. A thermal power plant even 300 km upwind from Delhi can affect air quality in the region.

Last year, when one of the worst air pollution episodes happened in Delhi and momentum was building for a massive public campaign, demonetisation struck. Dahiya remembers being in a TV studio waiting for a studio discussion on air pollution to start. It was Nov 8, 2016. Modi started speaking and as the news hit, an editor entered the studio and the agenda was no longer air pollution but demonetisation.

“This year, the pollution is almost as bad but there’s momentum (for change),” he says. “There is hope.”

As told to Malavika Vyawahare.