Fakeer Chand has lost four anti-pollution masks in the last month. “It was not a case of carelessness,” said the 54-year-old street sweeper as he moved his broom up and down a pavement in South Delhi’s Defence Colony, kicking up a cloud of dust that fused smog blanketing the city. “We do manual labour out on the roads and we don’t realise when the mask comes loose and falls. It eventually gets cleared away with dust, leaves and other pollutants that are swept off the roads.”

Two of these masks had been given to him by his employers, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation. The other two he had bought from a roadside stall for Rs 50 a piece. Mask sellers are doing brisk business in a haze-filled Delhi that has seen severe levels of air pollution since November 7. But the cotton masks sold on the roadside do not keep out the finer – and more hazardous – particulate matter like PM 2.5 and PM 10. For that, an N95 respirator is needed, which is more expensive.

Chand said he does not see the point of buying another mask and is now relying on an even more unreliable protection technique: a thin cloth around his face that covers everything except his eyes.

In the eye of the smog

Chand, who lives with his family in Haryana’s Bahadurgarh and travels around 20 km every morning to Delhi for work, said the particles in the air makes his eyes itch and nose run.

“Nothing much can be done about it,” he said, as he jumped off the pavement and sprinted to the other side of the road, his long broom tucked into his arm. “I understand that pollution is harmful but does that really matter for a person like me who deals with such intense level of dust early in the morning every day?” he said. Road dust is one of the
primary sources of suspended particulate matter in the city.

Chand, who was a farm labourer in Haryana, took up a job with the municipal corporation around 20 years ago. With his income, he needs to feed a family of seven comprising his wife, an unemployed son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. He did not disclose his salary.

Chand said that over the years, he has worked in almost all localities in Delhi. Since 2012, he has been confined to the southern part, after Delhi’s municipal corporation trifurcated into three area-wise divisions. He said he found all areas to be equally polluted.

“I am always surrounded by a thick cloud of dust and it is hard to tell which area is more polluted in general than the other,” said Chand as he finally sat down to rest on a security guard’s chair around 8.30 am and wiped his face from edge of the towel, his sole protector from the toxic air. “But I still do it because I have job security, which I cannot compromise with, and I also believe that it will not be that easy for me to get into a new profession at this age, no matter how dirty Delhi’s air gets.”