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‘Choosing a slow death’: Life in Delhi on the most polluted day of the season

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Tuesday, 30 October, was Delhi’s most polluted day of the season, and the metro looked straight out of a horror movie. What you met were not faces, but masks.

New Delhi, 7:30 am: Shankar runs a tea coop just outside the Nehru Place Metro Station/Epicuria Mall complex. By this time of day, business is picking up, and his Man Friday, Shibu, is running tea to the customers.

Illustration by Soham Sen

An SUV pulls up with its windows up, and idles outside the stall. Shankar passes two glasses of tea to Shibu, who runs over and passes them on to the hands that appear through the two-inch gap that opens up when the power window button is pressed for a moment. Soon, the glasses are on their way back through a similar crevice, money changes hands, and the car sets off.

Also read: There’s a 50% rise in heart diseases in India. Blame salt, sugar and air pollution

Winter is knocking at Delhi’s door, so this curious Kolkatan asks Shankar if it isn’t too cold for car air-conditioning to be comfortable this early in the morning. He grins.

“It isn’t the AC, sir ji. It’s air purifiers,” Shankar replies.

The mind wonders about people who smoke an entire pack of cancer sticks with their car windows rolled up, and here are two individuals who won’t risk their lungs in Delhi’s killer air. Who would? It’s not even Diwali yet, and that’s the state the nation’s capital is in.

8:00 am

The metro doors slide neatly apart, revealing people of all ages going about killing time till they can get where they have to. He’s reading a book, she’s touching up her make-up, he’s fiddling with his mobile, the middle-aged gentleman in the corner is sitting with his briefcase neatly nesting on his suited lap.

Yet, it looks like a scene right out of a horror movie, or at least a post-apocalyptic one. What you meet are not faces, they are masks — in every colour, shape and size imaginable, inside an air-conditioned metro.

Illustration by Soham Sen

The train moves on, hurtling through the fog that — as T.S. Eliot put it — is rubbing its back upon the tinted window-panes. Are they really tinted?

There’s some relief when the train goes underground but, as one resurfaces, the discomfiture is writ large on people’s masks again.

Arriving in Old Delhi aboard an autorickshaw, amid the smoke billowing out of the thickening traffic, one feels breathless. And it’s not just the charm of Delhi-6 that has caused it.

12:30 pm

Come Diwali, and a huge firecracker market pops up in the heart of Chandni Chowk every year.

But thanks to the Supreme Court’s insistence on ‘green crackers’ and the two-hour window of opportunity given to burst crackers on Diwali, the shops are shut even at mid-day on a Tuesday.

Shopkeepers sit in front of their downed shutters with the usual notebooks and cash-boxes, but one can sense the disquiet behind their silence.

Illustration by Soham Sen

A stout, middle-aged man with a thick moustache and wearing a soft pink shirt gets his words out in a huff. “You, you media people are responsible for all this. First you create this issue out of pollution, and then we fall prey to an incompetent judiciary!” he huffs upon spotting the press card hanging around this reporter’s neck.

Others turn around from whatever they’re doing and join in. Scrambling for a way to reroute their ire, a question is posed: What do they think of ‘green patakhas’?

“What green patakhas? They don’t even exist! Why don’t you go ask the Supreme Court what they are and where do we find them? And why did the order have to come a fortnight before the festival?” says the aforementioned middle-aged man, who is called Ashok and has been running this business for 23 years.

“Now what do we do with all the crackers? If we throw them in the river, they’ll pollute the water; if we burn them, they’ll pollute the air. Either way, we will land in police lock-ups.”

The others murmur in agreement and disperse.

4:00 pm

R.K. Puram has witnessed very high pollution levels throughout the day, but Siddharth has still landed up for the regular football practice at the sports ground. He’s chatting with his teammates on a bench just off the field — the practice that would’ve gone on for at least another hour has been called off. Why?

Illustration by Soham Sen

“Can’t you see the dust, bro? Our coach has called off practice till the air quality improves. That’s definitely not anytime soon. Don’t you know there will be more damage to our health if we play or work out in any way?

“This is all dust coming from the construction sites,” he says, picking up his bag and walking off.

7:00 pm

The last rays of the sun are long gone, and Kamal is sitting beside a pan shop. Around him is a slum that has mushroomed underneath a flyover, while a nearby empty lot has virtually turned into a landfill.

A skinny man in his mid-20s with messy hair and a patchy stubble, he gets up, wraps a thin shawl around himself, and walks out with his sack. Wood, paper and packing materials are peeping out of this sack.

Also read: Indian cities are choking but there have been just 6 air pollution convictions in 2014-16

Is he going to dump it in the ‘landfill’?

“No, we burn this at night to keep ourselves warm,” Kamal says.

Illustration by Soham Sen

But what about the pollution?

“Yes, it’s difficult to bear with the smoke. Where we come from, a lot of young and old suffer from respiratory problems. But it gets chilly at night, and we can’t afford heaters,” he says.

“If the cold spares us, that is only because we’ve chosen a slower death from the smoke and ash.”

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  1. ‘The mind wonders about people who smoke an entire pack of cancer sticks’. My thoughts too. Just saw weeks ago a young woman smoking so much as though her lungs depended upon cigarettes to live.

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