Like all other girls her age, four-year-old Sanchali Srivastava goes to nursery school and loves her Barbies, the colour pink and Cartoon Network. Unlike most of her friends, however, she carries an inhaler in her schoolbag every day to control her frequent wheezing and asthma attacks.
Her wheezing keeps her parents Sanchal and Rupali up most nights. The mother has asthma as well. “I cough a lot in class and all my teachers know I’m not well. At times, I can’t breathe at all,” said Sanchali, who studies in nursery class at the Aravalli International school in Faridabad. “It is not nice but I can’t help it. I don’t like it when I can’t swim like my friends,” she says.
Delhi’s air pollution did this to her. Across the national capital and its suburbs, polluted air is killing people, bringing down the quality of life, and leaving people feeling ill and tired. A survey by the Central Pollution Control Board and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences survey showed that a majority of people living in Delhi suffered from eye irritation, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath and poor lung functioning.
One in 10 people have asthma in Delhi. Worse, the winter months bring respiratory attacks and wheezing to many non-asthmatics who are old, who smoke, have respiratory infections or chronic bronchitis.
At Sanchali’s home, there is something within quick reach, something more important than her Barbie — her nebulizer, a device used to deliver medication quickly into the lungs in the form of a liquid mist.
"She hasn’t been sleeping well. The doctor used a nebulizer last night as the breathlessness was making it impossible for her to eat or sleep,” says her father Sanchal Srivastava, who works as a human resources manager for Tata Consultancy Services in Gurgaon. He has informed the school about her asthma. The teachers keep a close watch. It is a constant battle.
“She gets chest infections eight to 10 times a year which usually develop into full asthmatic attacks. Some doctors have told us she may get better once her lungs develop and her airways get bigger. Right now, we are keeping our fingers crossed,” says Rupali.
The couple chose to shift to Faridabad from Delhi two years ago after their daughter was diagnosed with asthma. “Delhi’s air is very polluted, and Gurgaon is as bad. My wife developed asthma after she got married and moved to Delhi from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh at the age of 23. We moved to the suburbs because we thought the air would be cleaner, but Faridabad’s proximity to Delhi and the development boom is making things as bad here,” says Sanchal, who drives three to four hours each day to reach his Gurgaon office.
“Commuting is a pain, but I think things would have been worse for her in Delhi or Gurgaon. My daughter’s health is far more important.”
Rupali is a full-time mom because she has to keep an eye on her daughter. “I worked part-time for a while after Sanchali was born but had to give it up because I was needed at home to ensure she was okay. I don’t really mind,” she says.
According to the World Health Organisation, pollution causes 777,000 deaths worldwide every year, 531,000 of them in Asia.
“The cold combined with chest infection worsens symptoms of breathlessness and can cause respiratory failure even in people who are not chronic asthmatics,” says Dr JN Pande, former head of the Department for medicine, AIIMS, and currently with the Sitaram Bhartia Institute.
“The winter smog is back this year. What do you expect? Delhi has 4 million registered vehicles, with another 1,000 being added to the roads each day,” says Sunita Narain, director of Centre for Science and Environment.
Efforts to control air pollution by introducing tighter Euro II standards for vehicles, lowering of sulphur content in fuel, introducing compressed natural gas for public transport and re-routing trucks outside the city did make some difference, but not for long.
“Despite all these moves, the sheer number of new vehicles drown all the gains. We need to … address new challenges such as the boom in the number of private vehicles, and in particular, diesel vehicles,” says Narain.
Until then, Ishan Jain, 5, will have to live with this at his Gurgaon home. He still cannot hold a pencil right but effortlessly uses an inhaler and a nebulizer.
He began wheezing within days of his parents moving from Chennai to Delhi three years ago. “I cannot breathe most of the time, it is as if an elephant is sitting on my chest,” he says.