Toxic Air Divides Delhi Between Poverty and Privilege

Tue Dec 05 2023
icon-facebook icon-twitter icon-whatsapp

NEW DELHI: Environmental change hits the poorest the hardest, experts say, and in India’s toxic smog-filled capital, New Delhi, that includes the air people breathe.

In Old Delhi, the ancient heart of the capital city, thirty-nine-year-old Rizwan pedals a rickshaw tricycle, transporting heavy goods and passengers through crowded streets often too narrow for vehicles, earning about 7 dollars on a good day.

There is no escape from the deadly smog of Delhi that cloaks the city in a misty winter grey and chokes the lungs of its thirty million residents, making it one of the world’s worst capitals for air quality. Rizwan said that his eyes burn; he is aware of the health risks, but what else can he do?

Levels of fine particulate matter – lethal cancer-causing microparticles known as PM2.5 pollutants that penetrate the bloodstream through the lungs — often target over thirty times the World Health Organization’s (WHO) danger limits.

Authorities in Delhi asked people in November to work from home and limit time spent outside to protect themselves from the poisonous air. But Rizwan said he had to choose work or starvation.

Rizwan said that he had left his village to come here, and he had to work hard as it was a necessity.

Toxic Pollution in New Delhi

Adjoining Old Delhi is the modern city established when building expanded exponentially in the early last century.

New Delhi’s affluent Gulmohar Park neighbourhood lies just ten kilometres (6 miles) south of the old city walls, but it could be a different world given how people there live and cope with the smog.

With an air purifier machine buzzing reassuringly in the background, successful 31-year-old cinematographer Madhav Mathur begins his day by checking pollution levels on a WhatsApp group made by residents.

Mathur, a keen long-distance runner born and raised in Delhi, said he can no longer exercise outside during the winter season when pollution is at its worst. Mathur said that he has stopped running outside due to pollution.

Mathur lives with his parents and usually works from home. When he does have to go outside for prolonged periods like filming, he uses a tight-fitting mask.

It mitigates the worst health risks, but Mathur’s major challenge is that colours on camera lose their vibrancy due to the “thick layer of soot”.

Prolonged exposure can trigger heart disease, lung cancer, strokes, and other respiratory diseases, according to the WHO.

The average city resident could die nearly twelve years earlier due to air pollution, a report by the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute said in August.

icon-facebook icon-twitter icon-whatsapp