One of the most popular sporting events of the national capital, the Delhi Half Marathon is scheduled for November 20, with thousands of participants gearing up and training for the run. However, the toxic smog hanging over the city has dampened the spirits of many participants, with some even dropping out of the event, since training outdoors in hazardous conditions is dangerous – this, despite the fact that pollution experts claim, the air quality has improved from a “severe” to “very poor”.

Facebook groups like Air Quality in Delhi and Help Delhi Breathe have suggested rescheduling the marathon until the air quality improves further.

Jai Dhar Gupta, CEO of the anti-pollution mask brand, Vogmask India, warned on these Facebook pages about the dangers of running outdoors with the current levels of pollution. According to a news report, Dr Tamorish Kole, medical director of the Delhi Half Marathon, himself has advised those with respiratory conditions such as asthma and chronic pulmonary disease to give the marathon a miss.

But while participants at the Delhi Half Marathon have a choice in the matter, as do those who can buy anti-pollution face masks, for many who live in the city, there is no choice but to breathe the air outdoors, often even while performing hard labour kin to a “workout”.

Every day, Phool Devi arrives at the first house she cleans, at the Paschim Vihar housing complex, at 8 am sharp. She is accustomed to removing her footwear, and dupatta while she cleans – but for the past few weeks, she has been using the flimsy cloth to fashion a mask for herself.

“I’ve had this cough, that becomes worse if I don’t keep my face covered,” she said.

Devi, a mother of three children, lives near Jwala Heri Market and wakes up at 6 am to begin her day. She spends an hour cleaning cars with her husband before she begins cleaning homes – and for some time, the 20-minute walk to her workplace has become difficult.

“The kohra (fog) has been extremely thick since before Diwali this year,” said Devi. “You can’t even see anything when you’re walking. I feel like it has entered my eyes, nose and lungs.”

(Credit: Reuters)

The air quality in the Indian capital is at an all-time low, and reached “hazardous” levels on November 5. A thick, visibly-muddy smog hangs over the city, and on some occasions, the smog can be seen even inside homes.

At this time last year, people and organisations in the capital had taken to the streets, in order to mobilise the government to take steps to combat the problem. Even then, a large percentage of the population remained indifferent to the dangers of breathing in toxic air. This year, ignoring the problem appears to be an increasingly dangerous option.

In her book, titled Choked: Everything You Were Afraid To Know About Air Pollution, journalist Pallavi Aiyer talks about how solutions for polluted air are affected by the class divide:

“In India, those who can afford it have always dealt privately with the manifold failures of public services provision…. I have little doubt that India’s middle classes will also begin to invest in facemasks and air purifiers en masse… new fault lines of inequality will emerge, as the poor continue to choke, while the well-off don N95 masks.”

Aiyar is right – the starting price for good quality face masks is around Rs 1,900 and for air purifiers, around Rs 10,000. The story of those who cannot afford these contraptions and yet have to venture out of their homes for work on a daily basis, is quite different. For those who clean homes, wash cars, drive taxis or auto-rickshaws, or work as night watchmen, there is no option but to be outdoors – and particularly during the hours when pollution hits peak levels.

Devi has been exhibiting signs of air poisoning for weeks now – a persistent wheezing cough and difficulty in breathing.

“My three-year-old has developed a cough that just won’t go away,” she said. “We took him to a doctor who prescribed some medicine and asked us to keep him indoors to protect him from the pollution. We also try to keep his mouth covered with a cloth but he keeps taking it off.”

Research says that plain cloth does nothing to protect one from breathing in pollutants. Early this month, the level of airborne fine particulate matter (commonly referred to as PM 2.5) in Delhi crossed the 900 micrograms per cubic metre mark, 15 times the standard set by the World Health Organisation. Even now, the levels of PM 2.5 average around 400.

Auto-rickshaw driver Pravendra Kumar was hospitalised at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in December 2015, after he complained of severe chest pains and breathlessness.

“I was in the hospital for over a week and the doctors said it was because of air pollution,” he said. “At the time of discharge, they told me to take a month or more off to recuperate and not drive my auto, but how will I run my household if I don’t make money?”

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Neither Devi, nor Kumar have ever considered getting a mask. Kumar tried. After his hospital stay, he wore a basic N95 mask bought from a local chemist (for Rs 70), but since it needed to be replaced every few weeks, and he found it uncomfortable, he eventually stopped using it.

“For labourers and daily wage workers, the everyday struggle to survive and make money is much more real than air pollution, which exhibits its symptoms in the long term,” said Aiyer. “There is a sense of fatalism in them. They have started seeing the problem of pollution as a fact of life.”

According to Aiyer, the term air pollution only entered people’s vocabulary since the introduction of the odd-even system, introduced by the Delhi government last year, as per which vehicles with odd or even licence plates ran on alternate days.

“Delhi, I believe, is at a tipping point right now,” she said. “Till very recently, not many saw the situation as ‘man-made’ and chalked it up to an act of god – basically, weather – but more and more people are waking up to the reality with a sense of crisis taking over the upper class, because finally it is the air that even the rich is breathing is polluted.”

The author also explained the hazardous effects of bio-mass fuel, still used in millions of homes in India. “The poor, especially women, have been breathing in toxic air forever. Try breathing inside a cramped hut where the cooking happens on gobar chulhas. It is extremely difficult to breathe in such an environment.”

As bad as the air seems outside, being inside a car is no better. In fact, the air tends to be just as hazardous in a car with the windows rolled up. Taxi drivers especially get no respite from the pollution.

According to taxi driver Mukesh Pathak*, private cab operators like Ola and Uber, instead of providing drivers with masks, discourage them from wearing anti-pollution masks on the job.

“They have said no to covering the face keeping in mind security aspect,” said Pathak. “If we pull up wearing a mask on our face to pick up a passenger, especially since customers get a picture of us on their phone at the time of booking the ride, it might inspire distrust in them.”

A resident of Shahadara, Pathak’s first ride is usually booked by 5 am.

“That is the worst time to be out,” he said. “The fog is extremely thick and visibility is low.” Pathak has a dry cough that has been getting worse. He washes his eyes out frequently to ease the burning sensation.

Blame the government

In Delhi, most older neighbourhoods tend have an “outdoor tailor” – men who set up shop with just a table and sewing machine.

Sunder Bhati, a tailor in Dwarka, has given up his spot temporarily, since before Diwali. According to Bhati, on the day before Diwali, he experienced difficulty in breathing along with a splitting headache, and returned home after only half a day of work.

“I’m losing out on business by being away from the pavement, because my customers tend to come by at all odd times to hand me their clothes for alterations and such.” said Bhati. “I don’t own a cell phone so they do not have any other way of contacting me. I have been coming to my regular spot for a couple of hours every day so that I can collect some work, and do it from home, but mostly if someone comes before or after that period, my business goes to someone else.”

Most believe it is the government’s responsibility to fix the current conditions.

“Nobody can live their lives at home,” said Dinesh Pathak, who works as a security guard at a building not far from Bhati. “That is not how the world works. If not me, then my wife or my children would have to step out for work. Will the government give us money to sustain ourselves if we stay indoors to protect our lungs?”

The sentiment is echoed even by the privileged, according to Aiyer, who writes in Choked:

“Rich people I speak to in Delhi are quick to point out that they would be happy to take public transport if only it were better, cleaner, more efficient. They claim they have no problem with disposing of garbage safely, but it is the municipal authorities’ job to do so. Blame and responsibility is therefore always shifted to the government, while the individual herself is let off the hook.”

Aiyer believes that without bureaucratic cooperation across the board, we will not get a long-term solution.

“All the studies done over the last 10 years show that pollution doesn’t come from a single source,” she said. “Burning of garbage and leaves, vehicular smoke, chulha smoke and industrial emissions together cause the air pollution that we are dealing with now.”