With pollution levels at many times safe limits, New Delhi’s residents are at their wits’ end when it comes to how to cope with hazardous air, even as they desperately seek action from the government.
Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who has described the metropolis as a “gas chamber,” has no ready answers. Other than shutting down schools, no concrete measures were initiated on the second day of the air pollution crisis.
The city of 19 million inhabitants has had a dystopian aura in recent days, with people wearing pollution masks as a shroud of haze hangs over its roads and avenues.
“It is a dangerous situation, the smog is so thick that you can see it enter our rooms. My children are at home, with school and their tennis classes cancelled. They are crying because I stopped them from going outdoors,” says Sonam Chaudhary, a teacher and mother of two, who lives in south Delhi.
“They are caged at home, forced to watch TV. It’s a curfew by pollution”.
The Indian Medical Association has declared a public health emergency, warning people not to go out. Doctors have reported an increase in patients, particularly children and the elderly, reporting respiratory problems.
“Every morning I wake up with a suffocating feeling and a runny nose. There is stinging sensation in eyes if you remain outdoors for long,” said college student Gurjot Singh.
Many are buying air purifiers for use at home, but with a price tag of at least 10,000 rupees (153 dollars), they remain well out of reach for the city’s poorer residents.
Shambhavi Shukla, from the Delhi-based Centre of Science and Environment (CSE), says that besides the crop stubble burning from neighbouring states, moisture and lack of strong winds over Delhi had “locked pollutants” above the city, and it would take a couple of days for the hazardous air to clear.
Delhites have been critical of officials and politicians who appear blind to what they say is an emergency situation.
According to doctors, pollution levels in Delhi’s worst-affected areas had an impact equal to inhaling smoke from 50 cigarettes a day.
A recent study by the Lancet medical journal linked pollution to 2.5 million deaths in India in 2015 – tens of thousands of which would have occurred in Delhi, the country’s most polluted city.
“We are breathing poison, at these levels we are going to kill our children. The authorities saw this crisis coming, with all the crop burning over recent weeks, but no action was taken. When will they wake up?” Chaudhary said.
The Delhi government has thus far not held any meetings with neighbouring states, where farmers have defied a court ban on burning stubble, arguing that processing and stocking the crop residue would be a major drain on money and resources.
Radhika Kapoor, founder of the My Right to Breathe Campaign, accused Kejriwal’s government of breaking its promise to work toward a pollution-free Delhi, which the government made to a children’s delegation during a week-long smog episode last year.
The plan had been to improve the city’s public transport, while curbing heavy traffic and industry emissions, as well as the burning of rubbish and fuels that cause pollution.
“It’s the start of winter season when we will see several such days of smog as pollution spikes. Closing schools is just a knee-jerk and ad-hoc measure, what is needed are immediate, concrete steps to prevent such a situation,” Kapoor said.
“There has been lots of discussion and debate about it, it is now time to act.”
Kapoor believes emergency measures such as banning all construction, stopping the sweeping of roads to check dust pollution and limiting cars on roads had to be implemented immediately in the current pollution crisis.
A newly launched graded action plan, which prescribes measures depending on the severity of pollution, was of little use when the city had become unfit for human habitation, she says.
The CSE also said temporary measures will not work on days with such bad air quality, and “political leadership” was needed to take “decisive steps with immediate and long-term impacts.”
CSE’s director general Sunita Narain said there needed to be a massive expansion of public transport, by adding bus services, banning polluting fuels such as pet coke and furnace oil and increasing penalties for burning rubbish.
Arvind Kumar, director of Gangaram Hospital’s chest institute as well as a clean-air campaigner, says it was time Indians started demanding clean air as a basic right.
“Unfortunately in India, politicians only wake up when it becomes an election issue. People need to make pollution and the right to clean air election issues now,” said Kumar.
“All the talk about India’s progress becoming a leading power will come to nought if half of its its citizens are carrying an oxygen cylinder on their shoulders.”