New Delhi: Ramash starts work at 6 am, driving his auto across Delhi for more than 12 hours each day. He suffers from a heart condition and diabetes. He said the recent spike in air pollution has worsened his health issues. However, he cannot stop working because he has to support his family.
Delhi reached an average air quality index (AQI) of 454 at 4 pm Sunday (November 5) on a scale of 500, putting the city’s air quality in the ‘severe plus’ category. At 7 am Monday, it was reported to be 440. A healthy AQI is below 50.
In Lal Qila, where Ramash starts his work day, anti-smog guns mounted on trucks sprayed water to curb the pollution and the Red Fort could be seen behind a thick white haze. The anti-smog guns are out only during the same period every year.
Ramash said he has been working as an auto driver for about 35 years now and has seen heavy pollution each year in November and December. He said the smog makes visibility very poor, especially in early mornings, and it becomes harder to drive.
“Whoever is in power in the government – whether it’s the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] or AAP [the Aam Aadmi Party], or Congress – they have not done anything to control Delhi’s pollution,” he said.
Ramash said he has two children and his family cannot afford to lose income. And therefore, Ramash, like other people who don’t have an option, cover their faces, wear masks, and get to work.
“What choice do I have?” he said, adding that his health conditions have been worsened by the pollution.
“I drive day and night. If I don’t drive my auto, then what am I supposed to do?” he said. “I would not be able to afford roti, our kids wouldn’t be able to go to school… If I don’t drive the auto for one day, the next day, the children will not get to eat their breakfast,” he said.
According to doctors, the AQI spiking beyond 400 could prove fatal for those suffering from lung-related diseases. It even poses a risk of lung cancer.
“The number of patients with breathing problems has increased, with more people having coughs, colds, watery and irritated eyes, and breathing problems,” Nikhil Modi, a doctor at Apollo hospital in Delhi told The Guardian. “People of all ages are affected by this. It is time for us to wear masks and go out only when needed.”
Going out “only when needed” means about 18 hours a day for Mohammed, a rickshaw driver in Lal Qila, who starts his day at 7 am. Mohammed said he has lived in Delhi since 1993 and that during festival seasons like Diwali and Dussehra, the pollution is always bad. He said for the past few days, his eyes have been burning as he drove.
“There is too much pollution here, but I have to continue driving,” he said. “I sometimes feel sick because of the long working hours and the pressure to provide for my family.”
Riyaz, a migrant worker from Bihar, has been driving his auto for one and a half years. He also starts his work from Lal Qila. He says it has been difficult to drive in the polluted conditions.
“When we drive and the smoke hits our eyes, they burn,” he said. “And we cannot see.”
The rise in AQI on Sunday (November 5) prompted the Commission for Air Quality Management to implement all emergency measures mandated under the final Stage IV of its air pollution control plan, called the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP).
These measures include a ban on diesel-operated medium and heavy goods vehicles carrying non-essential goods, a ban on construction and demolition activities on roads, highways, and flyovers.
The concentration of PM2.5, fine particulate matter capable of penetrating deep into the respiratory system, exceeded the government-prescribed safe limit of 60 micrograms per cubic metre by seven to eight times at multiple locations throughout Delhi-NCR. It was 80 to 100 times the healthy limit of 5 micrograms per cubic meter set by the WHO.
Delhi pollution also saw a spike in the concentration of PM2.5, fine particulate matter capable of penetrating into the respiratory system, reached 282 microgramme per cubic metre. This is much higher than the limit fixed by the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) air quality guidelines. Its safe limit is 60 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3).
According to WHO, 24-hour average exposures should not exceed 15 µg/m3 for more than three to four days per year.
For Sonu, who sells pani puri near India Gate, health is not a primary concern. Every day, he stands outdoors for 10 to 12 hours, selling pani puri. Sonu said he has not felt any impact on his health in the past few days, but has definitely seen a cut in his pay.
Due to the smog, India Gate, a popular tourist destination, saw fewer visitors this weekend, directly reducing the number of Sonu’s customers.
“Because of the pollution, my business income has decreased by 50%,” he said.
The Delhi Pollution Control Committee said the capital experiences peak pollution from November 1 to November 15 when the number of stubble burning incidents in Punjab and Haryana increases. Delhi environment minister Gopal Rai also reiterated the ban on fireworks for the 2023 festival season.
Rai also announced an odd-even vehicle rule, starting November 13 until November 20, as a measure to combat air pollution. Further, Delhi’s minister of education, Atishi, announced that primary schools in Delhi will be closed until November 10.