Long exposure photographs of traffic lights swirling around Chhatrapati Maharaj Shivaji Terminus. A flock of pigeons taking flight with the Gateway of India in the background. The arc of streetlamps glittering in the night on Marine Drive: these are a few of the images that have come to define the Mumbai of old.

But the Mumbai of the 21st century has a different visual signature, one which almost invariably involves the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. As one approaches the eight-lane motorway spanning the sea and gazes across to its other end, it appears to be little more than a narrow strip of steel and concrete, suspended in place by tenacious, sloping wires. On one side, the sea stretches out and on the other, a line of buildings – seemingly made of Lego blocks – reaches up to the sky.

If you live in Mumbai, you would, of course, know that this is a picture painted entirely from memory. Because for the past few months all one has been able to see from the Sea Link – and, indeed, any other location in the city – is a grey and grimy veil of smoke and dust.

The air quality in Mumbai this winter has plunged to its lowest levels in four years, with the Air Quality Index rarely improving beyond the “poor” to “very poor” category. This deterioration is not sudden and Mumbai has had poor air quality days in the past few years, but the persistence and prevalence of particulate matter in the city’s air has grown to such alarming levels that comparisons with New Delhi are now par for the course.

Over the past few years, New Delhi’s travails with air pollution have remained a fixture in the news headlines and irretrievably stained its reputation. Its autumnal penchant for poisoning the lungs of its inhabitants has become part of the city’s identity: an annual ritual characterised by watering eyes, raspy throats and ineffectual politics. In every inane debate that pitched the two cities against each other, those arguing in favour of Mumbai would ultimately draw the air quality index card to vanquish their opponents.

So when Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on February 16 tweeted a global ranking of polluted cities where Mumbai ranked second – and the national capital was conspicuous by its absence – it is hard to imagine he did so without a feeling of grim satisfaction.

As it happens, subsequent reports clarified that the global ranking he tweeted was based on a day when “the Delhi region benefited from strong winds”. In fact, an analysis of the annual data showed that Delhi had beaten Mumbai on the pollution scale every month last year.

But that is besides the point. Indeed, to get embroiled in a contest – a breath-off, if you will – of which city takes more of a toll on one’s respiratory system, is to lose sight of the fact that we are all hurtling down in a race to the bottom.

Proximity to the sea has served Mumbai well in the past, with the coastal winds cleansing the air of toxins. But it seems even nature is now throwing its hands up in despair. Changes in climatic conditions and wind patterns mean they can no longer soften the blow of pollution caused by ever-increasing construction and infrastructure projects in the city.

Since early March, reports have started to confirm what most residents of the city already knew to be true – that the worsening air quality is leading to a marked rise in patients suffering from respiratory ailments.

After weeks of zealous adherence to the Taoist philosophy of Wu Wei (inaction), the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation finally announced a raft of measures to tackle this crisis, including issuing clean construction guidelines and deploying misting equipment and air purification units.

Some of the proposed steps, such as planting more trees and setting up air quality monitoring stations, may not provide immediate relief but it is at least heartening to see long-term planning.

In truth, Mumbai has a complicated relationship with natural crises. How else can one explain the barrage of self-affirming, vainglorious “spirit of Mumbai” messages that flood social media every monsoon when the city, too, is inevitably flooded.

We, the people of this city, have an unfortunate tendency to accept – and, even lionise – suffering, and it is often at the cost of holding the civic and state administration to account for the lack of adequate planning and infrastructure management.

Let us hope that when the very air of the city is at stake, we remain committed to raising our voice and can compel the administration to bring about change.

Rohan Banerjee is a lawyer in Mumbai.