Weekly Update: Delhi’s Hazardous Air; A New Strain Of COVID

A social media meme drenched in black humour has been doing the rounds in Delhi for the past couple of weeks. It goes: “If you don’t gulp down your peg of Glenfiddich quickly enough on an evening in Delhi, it can turn into a Laphroiag.” The reference here to the lighter coloured Speyside whisky turning into a darker, more peaty Islay whisky is all about pollution in Delhi. On Saturday evening around 7 pm, the Air Quality Index (AQI), which measures the levels of suspended particulate matter in the air, in Delhi was around 745. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution and the greater the health concern. For example, an AQI value of 50 or below represents good air quality, while an AQI value over 300 represents hazardous air quality. At 745, it is a grievously terrible situation.

While jokes and memes, tapped out on phones from well-endowed and privileged Delhiites, gives one side of the picture in Delhi, the story from the streets of India’s capital city is not one that could make you guffaw. Delhi has an estimated 150,000-200,000 homeless people, the majority of whom live on the streets. CNN had a heart-rending story about an 84-year-old homeless man begging for food on the sidewalk outside Delhi’s South Campus Metro station, breathing the air noxiously full of smog. Millions of Delhiites eke out their living in the sprawling city with a population of more than 20 million by working on the streets, on construction sites, in open-air food and vegetable markets, or simply by plying auto rickshaws and handcarts. Hawkers, policemen, security guards, food delivery couriers–you name it–they are constantly exposed to air quality that is life-threatening.

The situation is a repeat every year, especially as winter sets in and cold air traps emissions from stubble burning on farms around Delhi, poorly regulated factories in and around the city, and the mesh of foul emission spewing traffic. Every year, when this happens, there is media outrage and huge concerns. But everyone, including the government, has become so inured to it that even as it gets warmer and the air clears even a little bit–although even then the AQI levels are dangerous–the outrage dies down. Year in and year out, it is the same story.

It is not that the government–both at the centre and in the Delhi state–have not done anything. A few years ago, they tried an experiment of restricting traffic by allowing only vehicles with licence numbers that were even to be out on the streets on one day and ones with odd numbers the next. The experiment wasn’t given time enough for its efficacy to be assessed before it was shelved.

This year, following a judicial order after an environmental activist had moved court, schools and colleges were shut down; construction projects were stopped and some of the coal-fired power plants around the city were ordered to be closed down. But as the air quality improved marginally, everything was back to business as usual.

Delhi isn’t the only Indian city that is reeling from the adverse effects of air pollution. Nine of the ten most polluted cities in the world are in India, which depends heavily on fossil fuel as a source of energy. At the COP26 summit that recently concluded in Glasgow, India was one of the countries that wanted to phase down coal instead of phasing it out.

It is a classic conundrum. Industrialised countries have reached a level of advanced development, (much of it achieved through decades of burning fossil fuel) where they can now decide to move to a non-fossil fuel environment. Countries such as India, which are still grappling with basic development goals cannot afford to do so. What then is the solution? The answers remain elusive.

Yet Another COVID Variant From S Africa

Even as a new and potentially more dangerous COVID strain was discovered in South Africa and travel restrictions were imposed by many countries on movement of people from there, many Indian states have imposed fresh restrictions on people travelling to those states from international as well as domestic areas. In Maharashtra, all domestic travellers will have to either be fully vaccinated or have a favourable RT-PCR test that is valid for 72 hours.

In Kerala, where the COVID situation has remained alarming, the emergence of the new strain, named Omicron, has given cause for concern. Kerala has been so badly affected by COVID this year that in August there were days when the relatively small state accounted for more than 50% of the total number of cases in the country.

Epidemiologists have had no concrete answers to why Kerala has been so badly affected. Some say it is because the state is able to test people for COVID at a much higher rate than what other states are able to do. Others point to population density in the state. But it is also a fact that Kerala has been able to vaccinate its population more efficiently than other states and that last year it was able to control the spread of the virus better than several other states.

But given India’s huge population, high levels of poverty and low levels of awareness, the emergence of a new strain of COVID, albeit for now in S. Africa, should be a reason for worry. And state as well as central governments have to constantly monitor travel, vaccination programmes and precautionary measures such as mandatory social distancing and the use of masks.

‘I Am A Pollution Refugee, Forced To Migrate From Delhi’

A Delhi citizen all her life, Priyanka Gera was forced to leave a well-settled living due to worsening air quality in the city. Gera says she has lost hope of seeing any improvement

I grew up in Delhi. I was a pure Delhiite until the birth of my daughter when I could no longer ignore the air pollution in Delhi. My husband was perpetually anxious about her wellbeing. We bought an AQI monitor and put air purifiers at every room in our house.

During winters we didn’t send her to pre-school on most of the days because the AQI used to be severe. We would escape to a hill station around Diwali. Then came a point when we no longer wanted to adjust our lifestyle according to pollution levels.

We started wearing N95 masks in 2018-19 while venturing out. Now masks are mandatory due to the pandemic and I find it funny that people still won’t wear masks despite the Covid guidelines, leave alone the poor air quality.

As the situation got worse by each passing year, in 2019, we took the tough call to leave our families, social circle and well-set careers and move to Bangalore for the sake of a better environment. Most people can’t do that or won’t do that – leave their well settled lives because of a danger that they don’t think is clear and present. So, they tell themselves various things to live with it, most vague of these reasoning is that somehow, you’ll develop strength or a kind of immunity in your body to adapt to pollution as if it were some ordinary flu germs. Yes, it’s true, I have heard this from so many people in Delhi!

ALSO READ: ‘NCR Air Is Worse Than Smoke From A Coal Mine’

Having lived in Bangalore for two years have done just the opposite. Now, every time we come to Delhi to visit our families, we get unwell. I wake up coughing every single day. No, it’s not Covid-19, it’s another lung killer that we choose to ignore – pollution!

I don’t know why most people are not anxious about the pollution affecting quality of their life. People like us are exceptions, who are willing to uproot themselves because we’ve lost hope that it can ever improve here.

Surely the government and agencies have been aware of the potential crisis since decades, that’s why CNG was introduced and Metro was planned. All industries have been sent out of Delhi. The problem is not just Delhi, it’s very much there in the neighbouring states too.

Government action is but all ‘reaction’ – nothing much is being done proactively. It takes the Supreme Court to give ultimatums to Delhi Government to take steps, now construction has been halted, schools are shut etc.

NCR Air Pollution in Winter

‘NCR Air Is Worse Than Smoke From Dhanbad Coal Mines’

Rajesh Kumar, 48, a construction engineer in Faridabad, says he shudders to think how people with respiratory issues cope with NCR air pollution in winter

I grew up in Dhanbad, one of the most polluted places in the country, but trust me the air quality in Delhi-NCR is even poorer than the simmering smoke from coal mines. I live in Faridabad, and while a lot of people are focusing on how polluted Delhi is, the entire NCR is equally bad, if not worse.

I had shifted to Delhi-NCR in 2005 from Manipur and the difference in air quality between the two places was palpable. I begun having difficulty in breathing while driving, and the pollution has shot to such alarming levels in the last five years, that it has become unmanageable. Every day is an ordeal.

Owing to the nature of my work as an engineer, I have to drive every day to my workplace that is often a dusty mass of construction land. I’m not asthmatic, but still if a normally young and healthy person like me can find the situation so troublesome, imagine what it can do to senior citizens, kids and those fighting respiratory illnesses.

My mother, 67, spends her time between Dhanbad and Faridabad. She is asthmatic and with each passing year that she spends in Faridabad, she has been complaining of breathing issues. She stays put inside the house when she comes here to avoid the “heavy, pungent air”. My younger son also finds it difficult to navigate winter months because of the pollution levels. He is allergic to dust and keeps sniffling continuously.

There are factories upon factories in NCR and a never ending series of construction work going on, adding to the pollution. Many of these factories don’t follow the pollution control norms adding to the misery of people. I have even stopped going for my morning and evening walks owing to the pollution. I tried for a few days, but then I begun facing difficulty in breathing (one cannot even think of jogging) and my eyes also started burning.

Kumar says climate crisis is for real

Last year was so different: there was the spectre of Covid looming large over our heads, but the lockdown meant lesser vehicles, lesser factories open and thus very low levels of pollution. It was like we had moved to a different world. Even post-Diwali, the air quality hadn’t deteriorated like every year, the visibility wasn’t low. But we are back to square one again this year. Seems like we have squandered away all the gains made last year.

Climate change is real and a solution is required urgently. Not only are dialogues between nations important, it is prudent for governments across the world to hold dialogues with their citizens. In India, we need to really take a quick, hard look at the problem. As a government employee, my team and I ensure that we don’t compromise the Earth and its people’s health in the name of development. If we have to cut a particular number of trees for construction, we ensure that we plant double the number of trees.

Unless we give the Earth back more than we take from it, we are going to keep facing difficulties. As we have noticed, each year is getting more difficult climate change wise and the weather is getting more and more unpredictable. We cannot ignore the problem of pollution anymore. The parali burning in Punjab also needs to be addressed. Rather than just blaming the farmers, we need to work together in helping them find a solution as well. We all need to come together to save the Earth.

Pollution Levels Rise in NCR-Delhi

Watch – ‘Zero Concern For Air Quality At Ground Level’

As pollution levels rise in NCR-Delhi, doctors warn the spread of Covid-19 may worsen. LokMarg speaks to environmentalist Sanjeev Lakda and several residents about the rise and air pollution level, its reasons and harmful impact in pandemic times.

There is unanimity that ‘Unlock’ has spelled doom for the Capital region’s environment. With the return of industrial, vehicular and stubble-burning activities, Delhi residents are now plagued with a double-whammy of bad air and virus.

Watch the video here:

Don’t Forget Aam Aadmi

MissionShakti – ‘Don’t Forget Aam Aadmi’

Raj Kumar, 25, a carpenter from Jharkhand, lauds India’s entry to elite space prowess but he wishes that the government will pay more attention to the issues that affect the lives of the common man…

If we can shoot missiles in space, we can surely develop technology to keep our rivers clean and make our waste management practices more efficient too, isn’t it? This was the thought that came to my mind when I heard the Mission Shakti announcement.

I heard that before Prime Minister announced this achievement on national television, many people were expecting it to be a ‘demonetisation-esque’ announcement. Some people panicked when Modiji got a bit delayed in making the announcement, but later sighed in relief, when they realised that Mission Shakti would not have any direct impact on their daily lives.  

India can now shoot down satellites in space. I am proud of this achievement and I have been watching to news channels to understand more. I learnt that India is the fourth country in the world after the U.S, Russia and China with access to the anti-satellite missile technology that Mission Shakti boasts of. This missile can shoot down any other satellite in space if the need arises. And I find it unbelievable that we have done this before countries like Australia, England and France!

Having said that, while the BJP government is making big strides in space, I feel they should not forget the ground realities. As a country, after we have begun to feel more secure strategically, we would also like to feel more secure financially. Narendra Modi should think about giving benefits to workers in the vast unorganized sector — of which I am a part.

I am happy that Narendra Modi has made an effort to reach out to the likes of us through initiatives like Mann ki baat. It makes me feel as if I am a part of the country’s monumental achievements. My life has definitely changed for the better in the past five years. For that, I would give the credit to both my hard work and the government policies.

I admire the NDA government’s work, but they need to be cautious now, as after one has taken care of external problems, people will start questioning the government on problems that affect them directly. This government has been given one chance, and it has taken care of larger matters, but if it comes to power the second time around, it needs to look at the smaller issues that matter a lot.

Chronic Chest Congestion

‘I Suffer From Chronic Chest Congestion Due To Delhi Air’

Mohd Kayam, a security guard in Delhi-NCR is living with chest congestion and cough. Medicines are a staple for him. More than himself, he is worried about his children, who are always suffering from cold and cough. He wonders if we can ever get our blue skies back

I clearly remember as kids, we used to count stars while sleeping on the terrace of our house in Muzaffarpur, Bihar. Now, a shroud of haze blankets the beautiful spread of stars that the universe laid out for us. I don’t remember when was the last time I saw stars like those. I am sure not many people in Delhi-NCR can recall it either. I feel sorry for the generation born now — would they know of stars only through nursery rhymes?

Can we ever get our blue skies back? I am a security guard. Every day, I am exposed to polluted air and harsh weather. As a precaution, I wear a mask, but I don’t know if it is actually of any use. After completing my 12-hours, when I go back home, wash my face and rinse my mouth, the sink turns black. Over the years, my health has deteriorated. It takes an effort to breathe. My chest is always congested and medicines have become a staple.

I have visited Lal Bahadur Hospital and local doctors in the past for treatment. What worries me the most is the health of my children. Children now have a compromised immunity. Air pollution is killing children and we are helpless. I have noticed that people living in high-rise apartments have stopped sending their kids to play in the open.

Air pollution has snatched away their childhood. It was never like this when we were young. We used to spend hours playing in the ground and even in mud. Smog has forced parents to keep their kids locked inside their homes. Parks, tennis and badminton courts are lying vacant. Only some senior citizens come for walks. It is just not about Delhi, people living in other parts of the country are also complaining of pollution-related issues. The situation is apocalyptic and I do not know if we have the power or capability to reverse the damage that has already been done. Companies are minting money selling masks and purifiers and the time is not too far when we will have to pay for clean air. 

Toxic Air V

#Toxic Air V – ‘I Cannot Stop Breathing'

Sometimes I feel that the common man should not even attempt to think about the problems caused by air pollution. Do we have the luxury to leave the city and stay in a hill station or lock ourselves up at home on bad air days? The answer is a big NO.  Every day lakhs of people like me are forced to venture out on the roads to earn our daily bread.

This poisonous air is an integral part of my workplace, and I cannot stop and think about it. I left Jharkhand seven years ago and took up odd jobs to survive in Noida, Uttar Pradesh. Then soon I started my chai shop near Rajnigandha crossing. A large number of people board the metro or the bus to travel to Delhi –opening a tea-shop here made good business sense.

I start my shop at 6am in the morning and continue till 9pm in the night, all this hard work fetches me Rs 300 a day, on an average. For 15 hours I battle air pollution silently, negotiating extortionist policemen, who threaten to evacuate street vendors and demand free food. Over the years, I have learnt how to deal with them. In the fight to survive on the street and to cater to customers, these are tricks of the trade that I have had to master.

Dealing with air pollution is something that I haven’t mastered, neither do I have the capacity to do it. Simply because I do not have the time. However, at night, before I go to bed, I can feel a kind of heaviness in my chest. I do not have the guts or the money to get it checked. What I earn is just enough to run my household, paying medical bills is something that I have not included in my monthly budget.

I left Jharkhand because I had no job there. Some of my friends there work in factories, but their lives are even worse. And some worked in thermal power plants and mines. They not only have to deal with air and water pollution as a result of the mining, and the thermal power plant, they are also paid very less. Their bodies have grown hollow from inside. Here, at least I have a better life.

My kids are the only silver lining in my life and I try to shield them and keep them safe as much as possible. They go to school and are learning about environmental protection and hygiene. I make sure they learn and do what I failed to do in life.

Toxic Air IV

#Toxic Air IV – ‘I'm Teary-Eyed Whole Day’

Arun Singh Munda, 26, is a traffic constable in Ranchi, the Capital city of Jharkhand. He braves all kinds of weather and air pollution to report to work at 9 am every day. His day ends at 7 pm and in between these 10 hours, he directs traffic on roads, catches hold of violators. But while he does it, his eyes are constantly watering and burning. Pollution is a work hazard that he cannot avoid.


Ranchi, the state capital of Jharkhand has a huge forest cover. Naturally, the common perception is that it a green city with healthy, clean air. But people couldn’t be more wrong. Ranchi’s air is getting more toxic by the day. By some media reports, Ranchi is now competing with Delhi in air pollution. Last year, I had got to know during a workshop about vehicular pollution and the PM2.5 levels (particulate matter less than 2.5 micron). It is a dangerous pollutant that can enter the lungs and invite a host of infections. The monthly PM2.5 level in Ranchi was measured at 200 while at Delhi it was 320 (The safe level is considered to be 31-60).

Given the larger forest cover and the lesser number of vehicles as compared to Delhi, Ranchi’s PM 2.5 levels should have been much lesser. But there are multiple sources of air pollution that have worsened the air quality in our city. Besides dust and toxic fumes from vehicles, which openly flout pollution norms, thermal power plants dotting the state of Jharkhand and the mindless incineration of garbage must also be contributing to the foul air.

I am a traffic police personnel, manning signals every day and I have a ground knowledge of what air pollution means. I can also sense when things are getting out of hands, and what it is like to stand exposed to polluted air throughout the day. From my own experience I am telling you things are turning for the worse by each passing day in Ranchi. The days after last Diwali made life hell for those who were to remain on the street for work.

I work from nearly 9 am to 7 pm with a few breaks in between. My eyes are perennially watery and burn throughout the day. But I have to report for work braving all kinds of weather, blistering sun or heavy smog. Our immunity is compromised as compared to others since we are not protected by the confines of an office. It is a work hazard and the only protection we have is an anti-pollution mask.

Trucks carrying waste, untreated garbage lying on roadsides, small roadside businesses and eateries not following waste disposal norms make life even more difficult for us, exposing us to a host of infections.

The treacherous weather in Ranchi conspires against us. It can go from comfortably warm to chilling cold within a matter of minutes with the setting of the sun. So we might have less problem from pollution during the day, but in the evenings the air can get heavy to breathe. Life would be easier for us, if people did their bit to reduce pollution levels. The least vehicle owners can do is abide by vehicular norms.

Toxic Air I

#Toxic Air I – ‘Dust, Pollution Part Of Life’

paan-gutkha shops here in Deoghar (Jharkhand) on my way home in the evening.

My friends and I laugh wryly every time I see privileged people on television talking about how badly their countrymen are affected by air pollution. They sound like a joke. Do people sitting in those shining studios ever spare a thought about people like us? I am a construction worker and I too am forced to make peace with toxic air, even though my exposure to air pollution is much more prolonged than any of the experts or politicians sitting and making idle talk in television studios.

My day starts early in the morning as I start walking on dusty kaccha roads waiting for a ride to come by. If I am lucky, I get to hang on the sides of buses or sawari autos. On rare occasions, I am able to get a seat. But then the co-passengers cringe with disgust. Who would want a dirt-laden labourer sitting next to him/her? People talk about air pollution in Delhi and other big cities, but the truth is that it’s a national problem.

The air in villages and small towns is equally bad. Smog is probably not visible here but the amount of construction happening in this town is insane. A new building is being constructed after every 50 metres or so. Every time a lorry unloads bajri (red sand) or reta (sand), it is impossible to breath. My job is to lift soil, bricks, sand and small stones used for construction, for nearly eight to nine hours. I first have to dig the soil, or sieve the sand or arrange the bricks before I can start carrying the load.

In short, I am in close contact with dust particles throughout the day. My load can go up to as much as 40 kilograms at a time. Add to it, the pollutants from industries, coal plants, vehicles and stubble burning.  And I have more breathing issues than the grandparents in family!  Sometimes I have a lot of difficulty in breathing and it becomes worse during winters.

Breathing isn’t the only issue. Take a look at my hands. The skin has got dry and flaky; sand and other dust particles clog my skin pores and make my skin burn. My hands were not like this when I started to work at sites. My friends, who work as labourers in Delhi, sometimes get masks to cover their faces while working. They told me that being the capital city, many NGOs actively conduct regular health check-ups of construction workers, and distribute masks.

Sadly that is not the case in small towns. Here if you fall ill, you have to ignore it and keep working. Labourers, who work for hotel projects are slightly better off. At least they take care of the working conditions of the labourers. But things are bad, where I work. They use huge machinery. We are surrounded by big vehicles such as JCB machines, tube-well boring machines, and road rollers that keep plying at the construction site– the dust never settles.

I understand this is part and parcel of the vocation I have chosen for myself, but if the construction pace was a little slower, perhaps we could get a little space, where we could take little breaks to sit and relax. We do not even have masks to shield us from the pollution, my red gamcha is the only protection I have. To add to our woes, we mostly live in the poverty-ridden localities, where water shortage is often a problem. As a result we do not even get to clean ourselves properly after having been exposed dust and other pollutants.

Indiscriminate dumping of garbage is also a problem in our locality. We live in a haven for infections and the pollution makes us more prone to them. Cold, cough, running noses, burning eyes and headaches have become a part of my life. The situation is worse for female construction workers and older labourers. We earn around Rs 300-400 per day and we cannot afford to spend money on medication. We just pick ourselves up and march on. *(This is a fictitious name. The construction worker was just not interested in identifying himself despite frequent requests. All he wanted was his sufferings be known to others)