For 12 hours a day, Raju Misra stands at his snack stall in Anand Vihar, inhaling toxic fumes and railing against politicians for failing to clean up the filthy air.
This bustling suburb is the world’s ultimate pollution blackspot, the ground zero in Delhi, whose air quality the World Health Organization (WHO) has ranked the most hazardous on the planet.
Surrounded by major roads clogged with old trucks, along with the interstate bus station, dust-generating construction and not far from a coal-fired power station, the area’s air routinely tests far worse than the rest of the city.
“In the morning, you can see the smog and smoke in the air from the pollution,” Misra said, struggling to be heard over the buses.
“We want the number of cars on the road to be cut. Common people, politicians have to come together to reduce Delhi’s pollution,” the 60-year-old said from behind his counter.
Delhi has been shrouded in a toxic soup since winter set in, cutting visibility and pushing PM 2.5 levels more than 10 times over the WHO’s recommended safe limit.
These fine particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter are linked to higher rates of chronic bronchitis, lung cancer and heart disease as they settle into the lungs and can pass into the bloodstream.
Expert Anumita Roychowdhury said the elderly and children are most vulnerable, particularly those from poor families who live in areas of Delhi highly exposed to the particles.
Irreversible lung damage
“Children take in more air than the rest of us. And studies show the damage to their lungs can be irreversible,” said Roychowdhury, from the think-tank Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).
In the narrow, dark alleys near the bus station where simple homes are clustered, Janki Devi’s three children stay indoors after school rather than run around outside.
“I don’t send my children to the park to play. I don’t want them to fall ill and get fever or cough because of the dust,” said the 28-year-old, who has lived in Anand Vihar for 15 years.
Devi, whose husband earns Rs 8,000 rupees a month toiling in a factory, said she works hard to keep her small home dust-free, but feels powerless once they step outside the front door.
Last week, the Supreme Court banned till March 31 the registration of new large diesel luxury cars whose fumes are partly blamed for the pollution.
“Why should a rich man be travelling in a diesel car and pollute the environment?” chief justice TS Thakur told the court, which also banned the burning of garbage.
The court also barred the thousands of diesel trucks that storm through Delhi every night to avoid tolls on roads around the city.
Earlier this month, the Delhi government had announced road space rationing -- odd and even numbered vehicles on alternate days -- on a trial basis during the first fortnight of January.
There are already more than 8.5 million vehicles on Delhi’s roads with 1,400 new cars being added every day as incomes rise.
Experts remain sceptical about how the plan will be enforced given that the police answer to the Centre, which shares an acrid relationship with the Arvind Kejriwal government.
But environment minister Prakash Javadekar, fresh from the Paris climate change summit, insisted last week there will be “no fighting” in efforts to clean up the city for all residents.
“This is the principle we are following to achieve a pollution-free Delhi, and we have started working towards this goal,” Javadekar told reporters, adding that work on long-awaited bypasses for the trucks has finally started.
CSE director general Sunita Narain said politicians are under pressure from the courts as well as mounting alarm and criticism of the crisis among broad sections of Delhi society.
“I don’t think it’s just the middle class or the people who can afford to run away from Delhi. People who can run away from Delhi are running away and putting air purifiers in their homes,”she said. “I think there is a deep worry in Delhi today.”