Breathless in Delhi

This auto driver breathes in Delhi’s toxic air all day – yet knows little about the pollution crisis

Abdul Qadir’s lack of information points to state failure.

When autorickshaw driver Abdul Qadir was asked about how the Capital’s toxic air pollution was affecting him, all he could do was laugh. “What will happen to me? I have been driving my auto for 40 years now,” said Qadir with a smile. “It’s all taqdeer, fate. If I have to get sick, I will.”

Fifty nine-year-old Qadir lives in Lakshmi Nagar in East Delhi (or as he calls it, “Jamna paar”, across the Yamuna) and has been driving an auto rickshaw in Delhi since 1981. As the city faces a pollution crisis, Qadir is literally in the thick of it. He drives his vehicle, open from both sides as every auto in India is, through traffic for an average of 12 hours a day. Very few people in the city breathe in as much pollution as he does.

Information asymmetry

Yet, Qadir seemed incredibly uninformed about the risks he is taking even if he can see and feel the everyday effects of the pollution. “My eyes burn after driving for a few hours,” he said. “There is so much smoke, so many cars, so much traffic. Now anyone can pay Rs 50,000 and buy a car on EMI, so the number of cars has risen.”

Qadir in unaware that the Delhi government has declared a public health emergency or that there are advisories against people stepping out. “I saw that there is pollution. Farmers are causing it by burning their fields,” he said. “But I don’t watch that much news so I don’t know what the government has said.”

Qadir has studied up to the eighth standard and reads Hindi newspapers but admits to mostly never going past the first page headlines, if even that. “I don’t have the time,” Qadir claims, highlighting one the major challenges in Delhi’s pollution crisis: educating citizens about health risks.

“I have seen some auto drivers wear masks, but I never do,” says Qadir. The mask that he is referring to, however, is a black cotton mask available for anything between Rs 30 and Rs 50 across the city. They do nothing to stop microscopic particulate matter – PM10 and PM2.5 – that are the biggest health risks.

Cotton face mask are very popular across Delhi. But they are completely ineffective against the main cause of pollution-related sickness: PM2.5. Credit: Aabid Shafi
Cotton face mask are very popular across Delhi. But they are completely ineffective against the main cause of pollution-related sickness: PM2.5. Credit: Aabid Shafi

Competition and the cold

His lack of knowledge about the basics of the pollution emergency means that Qadir is worried about more prosaic things – like the winter. “The cold means fewer passengers and, of course, I don’t like driving when the temperature is too low,” grimaced Qadir. “Bahot diqqat hoti hai, man karta hai ghar main hee baithe rahe. I face a lot of problems, I don’t feel like leaving home.”

Temperatures in Delhi regularly drop to below 5 degree Celsius and it can get bitingly cold while travelling in an auto, given that it is open from both sides.

The rise of app-cased taxis also troubles Qadir. “Ola-Uber, Ola-Uber! That’s all I hear. Now everyone has a phone in their hands,” he said. “We don’t get as many passengers as before.” His earnings have taken a hit as a result. He claims that his daily sales have dropped from Rs 1,000 a couple of years ago to Rs 700-Rs 800 now.

Very few people in the city breathe in as much pollution as Qadir, given his job as an auto rickshaw driver. Credit: Shoaib Daniyal
Very few people in the city breathe in as much pollution as Qadir, given his job as an auto rickshaw driver. Credit: Shoaib Daniyal

Will he now buy a mask, though? “I think I will suffocate in one,” Qadir said. “I’ll continue the way I have. What will happen?”

India is the country most affected by pollution globally. In 2015, a study estimated that 25 lakh people died due to pollution – the highest anywhere in the world.

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