Raj Kumar Mishra can gauge how polluted the air is from the intensity of the burning in his eyes. By Saturday, they had burnt for the past three nights he had been on duty, guarding the gates of a residential colony in South Delhi.

“We had nights like these last year too,” he said. “Breathing was not difficult but my eyes were burning. Still, the fog was not so thick that we could not see cars coming.”

Mishra, 48, has spent most nights of the past decade outdoors, stationed at the gates of homes and banks. Many of those, like Tuesday night, were spent enveloped in a blanket of smog.

He left his wife and daughter at Bakheri village in Uttar Pradesh’s Basti district and moved to Delhi over 20 years ago to work in a Gurgaon factory, powder-coating metal light fixtures of cars. The factory closed within a few years and his nocturnal life as a night guard began. His daughter is now in college. “She is in her second-year of BA [Bachelor of Arts],” he said.

His team’s shift at the gate begins at 10 pm and ends at 6 am. The worst of the fog descends after 3.30 am, he has noticed, and rarely lifts before the shift ends. In that haze, they may fail to spot even a car turning the corner less than 50 metres from his chair.

None of them wear a mask.

Lack of protection

During stints at banks, Mishra realised masks were not for him. “I had used them for a few days years ago but they make me feel claustrophobic,” he said. “Last year, someone from the colony had brought around masks to distribute but I did not accept any.”

Health warnings from the government mean little. “We have heard schools have been shut for two-three days,” another guard, Shiv Charan Yadav, chimed in. “But that has nothing to do with us.” He joined just two months ago and admitted he had trouble breathing at some points over the last few nights.

But even in the poisonous air, they must do their job – note down registration numbers of cars entering or leaving the colony after 11 pm, and the addresses to which they are going. There is a guards’ cabin just big enough for three men to squeeze into, but is used only as a refuge from the rain. “Our work is out here,” added Kumar.

They wave about 200 cars through every night during the week and the number can go up to 400 during weekends. But they do not consider vehicular traffic as a part of the problem. “People say this fog is a result of farmers burning the stubble left on their fields after harvest,” said Yadav, with a shrug.

The trio of guards is more concerned about the onset of full winter. In the past, they used to burn leaves and twigs in metal troughs to keep warm. But last year, some colony residents protested, citing the Municipal Solid Waste Rules, 2000 and the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority, both of which prohibit the burning of leaves.

The guards are resentful about the complaints. “It gets very cold,” said Mishra. “At least we could warm our hands in the fire.”