“The air here seems to be unsafe for my one-year-old daughter,” said Delhi Traffic Police constable Ravinder as he handed the electronic chalaan machine to a colleague near the inter-state bus terminus in Delhi’s Anand Vihar, one of most polluted areas in the city. “She is safe at home with her mother, and I cannot think of bringing them to Delhi until something is done about the city’s air. It is slowly killing us all and like any other person, I want to keep my family safe.”

The 29-year-old traffic policeman got married in 2014 and lives with his wife and daughter in Khekra village in Uttar Pradesh’s Baghpat district. He travels 32 km to Anand Vihar and the same distance on his way back every day. But he has never thought of moving his family to Delhi.

“In three years, my family has been to Delhi just once for a tour of the city,” he said. “We visited the Red Fort, the Old Fort and the Qutab Minar. It was October and winter was yet to come. They saw the mild autumn haze and said they would never move to the city.”

Pollution hotspot

Ravinder, who goes by a single name, works an eight-hour shift. A regular work day for a traffic official in the Delhi Police – which has 3,500 traffic personnel – lasts 14 hours, from 8 am to 10 pm. But because of high pollution levels in Anand Vihar, the work day has been bifurcated into two eight-hour shifts, from 7 am to 3 pm and then from 3 pm to 11 pm. This ensures officials deployed here do not have to face peak traffic hours and the corresponding rise in pollution levels twice in a day. Also, no traffic official is posted in the area for more than one winter.

Anand Vihar has a national highway, a railway station and an industrial area as well as the bus terminus. In October, the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority identified Anand Vihar as one of five places in the National Capital Region with the foulest air.

When he goes back to a 14-hour shift some day, Ravinder knows he cannot afford to go home every day. “But I still cannot compromise with my family’s health and bring them here,” he said.

Burning eyes, itchy throat

Pollution levels go up in Delhi as winter sets in, with lower temperatures making the air denser and trapping pollutants closer to the ground. The burning of crop residue in neighbouring Punjab and Haryana contributes to the drop in air quality. The city and most of North India have been battling extremely high pollution levels since November 7.

In October, the Delhi Police distributed 10,000 pollution masks of N95 grade – with an additional filter to absorb carbon and toxic fumes – to all traffic officials and policemen who spend long hours outdoors every day. Last year too, they had distributed protective masks to traffic officials deployed in 200 busy zones, including Anand Vihar.

Ravinder said there is no need for masks in his village. The busy ITO junction in Central Delhi where he worked previously is also nowhere as polluted as Anand Vihar, he added. “Any traffic official who has worked in Anand Vihar can easily point that out,” he said. “One starts feeling the difference with the constant burning of the eyes, followed by a runny nose and a never-ending irritation in the throat.”

The situation is worse in peak traffic hours, he said, adjusting his mask. Like most of the city, traffic peaks in Anand Vihar between 8 am and 11 am and then again between 6 pm and 9 pm.

“Around 8 am, the temperature is low and the area is filled with haze,” said Ravinder. “By 10 am, as the temperature rises, the haze clears but chaotic traffic takes over. Thus, almost the same level of pollution persists.” He added that the same conditions work in reverse in the evenings.

Switching jobs or cities is not an option for Ravinder, who joined the Delhi Police in 2010. “Today, a permanent job is a blessing,” said the traffic constable. “I have to think of my wife and my daughter, her education being my priority. One can even inhale tons of toxic air for that, if needed.”