Breathless in Delhi

‘Nothing much can be done about it’: This sweeper spends his days in a cloud of dust in toxic Delhi

All that protects Fakeer Chand from the poisonous air is a thin cloth that he uses in lieu of a mask.

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.”

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.