For eight hours everyday, Kehar Singh stands behind a small cart in Sarojini Market in south Delhi, selling sweet potatoes roasted on coal. He lives near the fruit and vegetable market of Azadpur in north Delhi, and travels for more than an hour to get to work in the south of the city. He said he has never seen dhuaa or smoke of the kind that has engulfed Delhi this week.

“My eyes hurt a lot,” he said. “This is the first time I have seen such a lot of smoke.”

But Singh does not know the severity of the pollution. With the levels of PM2.5 – microscopic particulate matter that invades the lungs – touching 999 in parts of Delhi, way above the safe levels of 100, the Indian Medical Association has described the situation in Delhi as “a public health emergency”. The state government has asked schools to remain shut. The central government has issued an advisory asking people with breathing trouble to stay indoors and to avoid places with dust and smoke.

For street hawkers like Singh, who survive on daily earnings, this is not an option. Singh has not even heard about the advisory.

“I start by day at four in the morning,” said Singh. “I have no time to hear any news.”

‘Stay away from Delhi’

Singh migrated to Delhi from his village in Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun district when he was about 25 years old. “We had no land,” said Singh. “I was forced to come to Delhi to work.” Many people from his village worked in Sarojini market, a bustling centre for the sale of clothes and accessories. He started working with them.

Two decades later, Singh has his own food cart, from where he sells sweet corn in the summer and sweet potatoes in the winter. But he still does not feel comfortable in the city.

“There is too much tension here,” he said. “We have to be worried about the police all the time.” He was referring to the police targeting street hawkers like him.

Another problem is that he keeps falling sick. He either has a cold or cough, or suffers from gastric problems. “I eat from hotels all the time,” said Singh. “Khana pani accha nahi hai. The food and water here is not good.”

That explains why he does not want his sons to come to Delhi for work. They are still in school, but have already started working for other farmers in their holidays. Singh wants them to stay away from Delhi. “People fall sick here and the work is not guaranteed,” he said.

The only time when Singh feels healthy is when he visits his village at Diwali time every year. “As soon as I reach there, I start feeling better.”