On Friday morning, the Air Quality Index in Delhi soared to 472, raising it to the “severe” level at which even healthy people could face respiratory problems. The AQI stood at 562 in neighbouring Noida and 539 in Gurgaon.
This was in keeping with the hazardous air quality drops experienced every winter in the national capital, one of the world’s most polluted cities.
As doctors advised residents to stay indoors, Delhi announced work-from-home plans for government employees and shut down primary schools. However, this offered little relief for the millions of working-class Delhi residents who have no option but to continue doing their jobs outside.
Often something as basic as the day’s meal is contingent on daily earnings.
Scroll.in spoke to five working-class Delhities about how they are coping with this public health emergency.
Gangaprasad Mali, auto driver
Gangaprasad Mali, 60, says he hit a bad patch in 2017 after he was fired from a driving job in Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park neighbourhood. “After that I bought an auto and started to drive it,” he said. “It is back-breaking work.”
He complains bitterly about the pollution. “The air is so dirty it makes your eyes water,” he said. “CR Park is still a little better since there is haryali, green cover. It is worse in other parts of Delhi.”
Ganesh Kanojia, another auto driver parked at the same stand in CR Park, points out that children are the worst hit. “I pick up and drop kids to school and I see they get sick,” he said. “Saans phool jati hai, they have difficulty breathing and some of them start vomiting.”
The pollution has convinced Mali to try and leave Delhi and head back to his village in Bihar’s Madhubani. “The city has poison everywhere,” he said. “Even if I don’t earn there it is fine. I will live well, I have some farmland.”
Sikha Mondal, construction worker
Sikha Mondal, a construction worker from Katihar in Bihar smiles wryly when asked about pollution. “We are already breathing in so much dust everyday when we work,” she pointed out. “What is this pollution to us?”
If anything, Mondal is a bit angry at the discussion around pollution. “We had to stop work for some days due to the ‘lockdown’,” she said, referring to a temporary construction ban in Delhi due to pollution using terminology borrowed from the Covid-19 pandemic. “We are people who work to eat. We don’t want work to stop.”
Amit Oberoi, food delivery rider
Amit Kumar Oberoi, 39, is a food app delivery rider working mostly in Dwarka. ”Yes, there is pollution,” he said. “A day after Diwali my eyes were burning, then I used eye drops and now I am feeling better.”
Oberio, though, says he simply can’t afford to sit at home given that his company makes no provisions for pollution. “I work for 12-14 hours every day. I can not stay at home because I have to feed my family,” he said Scroll.in. “I do not know if there is any concern about pollution in our company. Nobody asks us. If we are asked to stay home during pollution and are paid then we would welcome that.”
Shah Alam, sanitation worker
Shah Alam, a sanitation worker in Bhogal, said that the pollution was so bad, his eyes were burning. The only solution he has is to wear a mask but even that is not feasible for the sort of heavy work he does.
“The smog troubles me and I try to wear a mask,” he said. “But I need to climb stairs while working, lift heavy loads, I am unable to breathe” with a mask on.
Dinesh Kumar, greengrocer
Dinesh Kumar sells vegetables on a cycle cart. He points out that pollution has reached extreme levels in Delhi.
“Everywhere you look, there is smoke,” he said. “My eyes burn, they water. I am unable to breathe, I feel tired. This would never happen before.”