Pollution In Delhi: It’s That Time Of The Year Again

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Switch on a news channel or open a newspaper, photographs framing Delhi’s pollution look grim. Everything is hazy and opaque. The sky can be grey one day, or a bit brown on another. You can make out the outlines of foot overbridges, the city’s wide flyovers and the hundreds of cars that dot them, carrying commuters to work. All look a little smudged.

You thank yourself that you are not on the road. You are at home. Working from home. But on really bad days, the view from your window or balcony is equally grim. Hazy and blurry. The pollution is in your neighbourhood, at your doorstep.

On severe days you feel its effects even inside your home. The head feels heavy, the eyes burn and you can experience breathing difficulties.

The smog extends beyond Delhi. Earlier this month, a veil of smog covered the Taj Mahal in Agra, disappointing visitors. Air pollution poses a serious threat to the exquisite monument itself and, over the years, the government has taken several measures to protect the marble mausoleum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The pollution has worsened since Diwali. The air, still and moist at this time of the year, doesn’t help.

It’s a serious issue. This year, the Supreme Court even suggested a lockdown in Delhi if needed, saying that people were having to wear masks at home.

Schools and colleges are closed, thermal power plants shut, construction halted except those essential and people are told to work from home.

Last two years, I have been largely at home because of COVID-19. I don’t own a car and commute mostly by Delhi Metro. I remember co-passengers wearing masks during these months. But I would avoid wearing a mask. I already wear glasses, which encroach on my nose and ears. Adding one more thing…

I say ‘I remember’ because this was before COVID-19. In the pandemic years, we have all got used to wearing masks. Wherever you go, you see men, women and children in mask. But people wearing masks before the pandemic wasn’t that common.

In 2016, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal introduced a rationing system for vehicles under the odd-even formula. Private cars with registration plates ending with odd numbers were allowed on roads on odd dates and vice-versa.

When former US President Barack Obama came to attend the Republic Day Parade in 2015, media reports said he could lose six hours from his lifespan after spending three days in India’s polluted capital.

I don’t know about other cities, but everyone in Delhi knows what AQI is. Air Quality Index. Most of us can tell the scale from memory — 0-50 (Good), 51–100 (Satisfactory), 101–200 (Moderately Polluted), 201–300 (Poor), 301–400 (Very Poor) and 401-500 (Severe).

The city’s AQI has been ‘severe’ to ‘very poor’ since Diwali. Digital boards beam the AQI in real-time at many public places. My laptop says the AQI right now is 363.

We are also very familiar with PM 2.5 and PM 10 and how these particulate matter can harm one’s lungs, thanks to media reports.

There are smog towers now — gigantic towers that suck in air, filter out particulate matter and blows out clean air.

Most homes have portable air purifiers. We too have one but I think it has stopped working and now mostly serves as a bedside table.

Once I was on a flight, returning to Delhi during these months. From the plane’s window, one could clearly see the line separating the clean air beyond the city and its polluted air. The ground below was completely invisible, blocked by smog, but the sky above was transparent, blue and sunny.

It’s apt to quote Neil Armstrong here: “When you are looking at the Earth from the lunar distance, its atmosphere is just unobservable… The atmosphere of the Earth is a small and valuable resource. We’re going to have to learn how to conserve it and use it wisely. Down here in the crowd you are aware of the atmosphere and it seems adequate, so you don’t worry about it too much. But from a different vantage point, perhaps it is possible to understand more easily why we should be worrying.”

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