Saturday I was halfway down my street when I realised I had left my pollution mask at home. I didn’t go back for it. It was only an orange day – “poor air quality” – after all.
‘In Delhi, you go inside for fresh air’: how I learned to breathe again
India’s capital has endured epidemics, the threat of war and a currency exchange crisis in recent weeks, proving that in this vast city, toxic air is just another problem
Friday 2 December 2016 14.04 GMT
I always knew that living in Delhi would gift me unusual talents. I can now confidently cross busy traffic with just a little daring and an outstretched palm. I know which of the puddles on the pavement are effluent and which are just muddy water. And I’ve developed a sharp instinct for insulation.
Windows that sit slightly open; outsized gaps between doors and floors; open space in the walls around improperly installed air conditioners: for a week this November I could walk into any room in India’s heaving capital and identify insulation flaws immediately.
Friends outside India, informed of this new skill, thought my unlikely interest in nooks and crannies a weird obsession. But I was convinced it was necessary for survival.
‘Every breath is an effort’: Delhi residents suffer amid smog crisis
Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, had reached its peak on the evening of 30 October, with extravagant parties and a spectacular barrage of fireworks across the city. The next morning, Delhi woke with a foul hangover.
A coarse, grey mist pressed itself against the windows of my bedroom. An acrid smell, like burning plastic, filled the house. Air-quality monitors in part of the city showed readings of 999, the upper limit of what they could measure.
The pollution from thousands of fireworks had combined with road dust, vehicle emissions and the burning of crop residue in neighbouring states to produce the worst air quality in Delhi in 17 years.
Here is what life is like in a city likened to “a gas chamber” by its own chief minister. Eyes burn. Deep breaths become elusive. Tiny pieces of grit crunch between teeth.
Voices develop a husky croak that no amount of throat-clearing can shake. Fields of view narrow to less than 100 metres, inducing a sense of claustrophobia. Inside becomes where you go for fresh air.
For a week I avoided doing interviews in person, or going out for dinner, or doing anything that might require straying too far from the air purifier running on its highest setting in my bedroom.
However, it did grant a handy excuse for wheezing my way through a Saturday morning game of squash. “Do you need a minute?” my opponent asked, while I panted in the corner.
“Sure,” I replied, rueing the buckets of daal makhani (buttery lentils) and garlic naan bread I’d been consuming. “It must be this bloody air pollution.”
The lungs of half of the city’s children will never recover
Before taking up my post, I had immersed myself in research on Delhi’s air problems. I learned that a 2014 study had found more than half the city’s schoolchildren suffered from compromised lung capacity and would never completely recover.
The World Health Organisation says India has the worst rates of respiratory illness in the world, twice as bad as China’s, and five times that of the UK. The deadliest particles are the tiny ones, less than 2.5 micro-metres in diameter (or a millionth of a metre), because they can travel deep into the lungs, and breach the blood-brain barrier.
I pored over the colour-coded system – from “good” green to “severe” burgundy – that determined the quality of each day’s air.
By the time I arrived in Delhi four months ago, I was fully prepared, toting a bag of disposable air masks that I had practised wearing, ensuring my entire mouth and nose were covered, not satisfied until each breath sounded like it belonged to Darth Vader.
So I was startled to see Delhi’s residents simply getting on with their lives, walking the streets unmasked, seemingly unaware of the toxic soup of particles that engulfed their city.
Everywhere I butted up against indifference. Outside a bar in Delhi’s Defence Colony district, I asked Indian friends how they coped with knowing they were at such risk from the city’s air. One lit a cigarette. “We smoke,” he shrugged.
At a dinner party in the Hauz Khas neighbourhood, over bowls of jhal muri (spicy puffed rice), I ruined the mood by regaling guests with statistics and warnings.
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“That’s why each day you spend in Delhi takes two hours off your life,” I ended one of my disquisitions, to a morose silence broken only by the sound of chewing.
The moments when I felt most understood took place inside electronics shops as I browsed for air purifiers: whirring, filtered fans that claimed to reduce the concentration of PM2.5 and other pollutants to safe, single-digit levels.
Relatively new on the Indian market, most of the devices are still prohibitively expensive, and so in their advertisements, cannot afford to mince words. “You think only smoking causes lung cancer?” one poster read. “Breathing at home can too.”
I hope that awareness of the perils of pollution in Delhi grows. I want my reporting to help spur international attention. But I also understand why it has proved so difficult to stoke popular outrage.
Delhi is in many respects a city of rolling crises: September saw deadly outbreaks of dengue fever and chikungunya; in October, a new war with Pakistan loomed. This month, more than 80% of India’s currency was declared void with four-hours’ notice. Perhaps, in this vast city of 18 million people, air pollution simply takes its place in the queue behind more tangible problems.
People are resilient. We adapt to our surroundings. I arrived in Delhi with illusions of living inside a purified bubble.Instead, I find the Delhi spirit of chalta hai – essentially, “shit happens” – rubbing off on me.
On clearer days, autumn is a beautiful season in Delhi. The temperature is cool, the mosquitoes are gone, the festival season slows the city’s pulse and rooftop parties beckon.
My obsession with avoiding bouts of bad air, itself unhealthy and unsustainable, is subsiding. I no longer scan rooms for gaps in the insulation. On Saturday I was halfway down my street when I realised I had left my pollution mask at home. I didn’t go back for it. It was only an orange day – “poor air quality” – after all.