Mask on the face, prayer on the lips: How Delhi survives foul air

ByAshna Butani
Nov 20, 2023 12:44 AM IST

HT spoke to those who are on the road due the nature of their work about how they are coping with the poisonous air

Shrouded in a haze, the capital continues to grapple with severe pollution levels, with residents gasping for breath. Some complain of cough, chest pain, and incessant headaches, others deal with itchy eyes, fever, and breathing issues.

Delhi’s air quality slightly improved on Sunday but stayed in the very poor zone. (Sunil Ghosh/HT Photo)
Delhi’s air quality slightly improved on Sunday but stayed in the very poor zone. (Sunil Ghosh/HT Photo)

Read here: Delhi's air quality improves for 2nd consecutive day with AQI at 301

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HT spoke to those who are on the road due the nature of their work -- an autorickshaw driver, a Delhi police constable, and a food delivery executive, among others -- about how they are coping with the poisonous air. Most said that they are accustomed to the annual phenomenon, and carry masks and medicines as precautionary measures. While the AQI has improved slightly, it continues to fluctuate between the “severe” and the “very poor” categories.

Kishan Pal, auto-rickshaw driver

The 41-year-old wears a black poly-cotton mask and carries a cough syrup with him as he drives his auto from one part of the city to another. “I try to avoid areas in the city that are more polluted that others but I don’t really have a choice,” said Pal, who has been riding an auto in the capital for 15 years.

Kishan Pal (HT Photo)
Kishan Pal (HT Photo)

Pal lamented how business takes a hit as local and international tourists rarely visit the city at this time of the year. “Earnings are down to half of what I usually make. Things in Delhi weren’t always this bad. In the winter earlier, the air was cleaner and people would visit the city,” said Pal.

When he fell sick in the first week of November, Pal who earns 10,000 a month and lives in a rented house in southeast Delhi’s Badarpur -- visited a doctor a private doctor, who charged a consultation of 750, and prescribed him two tablets, and a cough syrup for itchy throat. “Our autos have nothing protecting us from the pollution. When the air quality got worse early November, my throat started hurting. The annual pollution season hurts us. There’s financial distress as well as medical bills to foot,” he said.

Usha CR, an assistant at a car showroom

Last week, 51-year-old Usha CR’s dust allergy left her sniffling and gasping for air. Five days a week, she travels from her house in east Delhi’s Dilshad Garden to her office, where she is employed as an assistant, in Delhi’s East of Kailash for work. A green, surgical mask bought for 50 accompanies her. “First, I take an auto from my house to the metro station, then the metro ride, followed by another auto to office. And then same thing in the evening. The journey from my house to the metro station is the worst, as the route is extremely polluted since Dilshad Garden has a lot of small polluting factories,” said Usha.

Usha CR (HT Photo)
Usha CR (HT Photo)

She is diabetic, and also has thyroid issues. “It is difficult to breathe at times, and the mornings are tough. I have lived in Delhi for 28 years but have developed breathing issues during pollution season in the last two years,” said Usha.

Abdul Samad, food delivery executive

The 32-year-old food delivery executive is most bothered by the low visibility caused by the smog. On his motorcycle, Abdul Samad covers at least 100 km a day, ferrying one food order after the other, from noon to midnight. “Sometimes, the visibility is so bad that I can barely see anything,” he said.

Abdul Samad (HT Photo)
Abdul Samad (HT Photo)

Over the past few years, I have had to get accustomed. It is the first few weeks of November that are the toughest.” On November 18, the visibility stood at 500 metres at Palam. The lowest visibility this season was 200 metres on November 16. The predominant wind direction that impacted the visibility earlier this week, was northwesterly, which brings stubble smoke to the capital.

Harmanjeet Singh, athlete

The 21-year-old national athlete would be out of the house every day by 6 am for his training, which comprises weight training, hurdle sessions and speed workouts. This routine came to a halt in the first week of November when the skies turned grey. Even though the city has seen an improvement, his morning routine has not resumed.

Read here: Delhi breathes easier as GRAP-4 lifted, but 'stay vigilant': Environment Minister Gopal Rai

Since the third week of October, Singh has cut down his workout sessions from twice a day to once a day. And this impacts training for a tournament in January — the All India Inter-University qualification meet, where he will participate in 110 m hurdles. Generally, the sessions take place from 7 am to 9 am, and 4 pm to 6 pm. The athletes have a set routine -- with one training activity scheduled for the morning, and another one in the evening. “We have to plan our schedule in such a way that we build physical strength without compromising. This can be a task.”

“I am tiring out quickly and sometimes get chest pain due to the pollution. I have reduced working out outdoors but it’s still taking a toll,” he said. On some days, he travels via a two-wheeler from Faridabad to JLN stadium. He travels with his mask on, and if he is riding, then he wears anti-pollution glasses too. He said, “I am a little worried because we have lost out on a number of training sessions over the past month but I am still confident that I will be able to perform. We had expected pollution season to start during Diwali, but it began earlier this year.”

Deepak Chaudhary, Delhi Traffic Police constable

In the middle of his duty hours, the 32-year-old traffic constable got a call from home, Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut. “Wear your mask,” said a family member to him, as he managed traffic at the junction where Connaught Circle connects with Chelmsford Road in Connaught Place. When HT met him in the first week of November, GRAP IV had been imposed, and Chaudhury was tasked with stopping BS 3 and BS 4 Diesel vehicles. “The temporary impact of pollution is itchy eyes and bad throat but what really worries me is the long-term impact,” he said.

Earlier this month, the Delhi police too, advised its personnel on field duty to wear masks.

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