Delhi’s Privileged Flee the City to Escape Pollution. But What About the Rest?


Delhi’s Privileged Flee the City to Escape Pollution. But What About the Rest?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Who truly belongs to Delhi? Delhi gives you the answer in its signature style. On its wide roads, everyone drives like a Mughal (at least that was true until the new Motor Vehicle Act was implemented). And they carry an in-your-face attitude. You’ve got to duck it or walk offended and maybe bruised all the time. I am speaking as someone who has had a decent dose of Delhi’s love, in all its forms and formats. On a good morning, when the Air Quality Index reading is below 100, I am chased by skinny dogs almost every 500 metres on my long run from where I live to Hauz Khas Forest. These hounds don’t scare me anymore. We are aware of each other’s place, but we still have to pull our stunts. Over-the-top, simulating our own selves, all for show. We have all embraced the character of the city.Why would anyone love such a place? Who would even choose to live here if not out of obligation? The tastiest food here is an open invitation to high cholesterol and diabetes. Most of our monuments are badly managed by the state and badly treated by the public. We try to mask the city’s seething aggression as “vibrancy”. The air itself is adulterated with particulates which were supposed to be invisible to a naked human eye, but have been visible in Delhi for several years now. Despite all of this, you get on with the city because there are millions beside you who are doing the same, and hence, it becomes an acceptable thing to do.

The average PM2.5 recorded for Delhi in 2018 was 114, and that is “unhealthy”. That means, while the air quality in Delhi is hazardous and even worse in the peak season, it’s barely breathable for the rest of the year. There are only three months, from July to September, when AQI is “moderate” here. Moderate but never ideal. Come winter, this situation goes out of hand. Over the last one week, air pollution in Delhi soared to such heights that that you do not need WHO’s standards, or Delhi Pollution Control Committee’s and Central Pollution Control Board’s unspeakable numbers to let you recognise the situation’s urgency. So much so that a public emergency was declared.

On November 3, I decided to get out of Delhi because it felt unlivable. The AQI was around 400 when I first checked it in the morning. As pollution levels are usually highest in the early morning hours, I was expecting it to come down through the day. But it only went up. When the AQI reached 1,500 in the afternoon (the sensors cannot monitor beyond 999), I realised that things have gone out of control now and it was time to pack up and flee. Within half an hour, I booked a bus ticket to the mountains and sent an email to my employers informing of my temporary migration. I evacuated my own city. I had the luxury to.

We try to mask the city’s seething aggression as “vibrancy”.

But when the smog season began that wasn’t my plan. Like every other Delhi-NCR resident, I was hanging in there. I kept on increasing my tolerance limit for what I considered unlivable air quality. First it was 250, then I moved it to 300, and finally 500. For a good part of this year the weather fooled all of us — including the government, who then did what it does best and claimed credit — into thinking Delhi’s air problems might ameliorate this year. But more importantly, the favourable weather conditions gave the pliable citizens hope that this winter will be better. Hope, at the end of the day, is hazardous.

But along with the firecrackers, all my expectations exploded on the night of Diwali. The AQI was around 190 at 7 pm in my area. I felt a sense of pride, that Dilliwallas have finally learnt their lesson. But after two hours, my flatmate complained that the air purifier was not working because the monitor reading had suddenly jumped over 600. It took us a moment to realise that it was business as usual on Diwali night. Delhi had stayed the course.

During my bus ride out of the city, I heard the passenger sitting next to me say on the phone that he was leaving Delhi because his daughter’s school was shut for the rest of the week. The girl had started experiencing throat irritation, her eyes had started to redden and water, and symptoms of an injured respiratory system had also showed up. So, he decided to take off with his wife and daughter for a few days. He and I were exceptions. In my conversations with people who are aware of the severity of the situation, air pollution has started appearing as a potential reason for them to permanently leave the city. These people were termed “pollution refugees” in a feature by The Washington Post last year, which raised the question, “How great is a city if its air causes some of the people who live there to flee?”

But not everyone has the privilege to leave. Not each of Delhi-NCR’s 29 million people can pack up and escape to the hills or move to sunshine Goa. There are lakhs and lakhs of people who live on the roads and many more who cannot afford to skip even a day’s work. Leave alone air purifiers and face masks, they do not even have access to the indoors.

Those who are responsible for fixing our air are busy hurling dirt at each other

Those who are responsible for fixing our air are busy hurling dirt at each other. The CMs of Delhi, Punjab, and Haryana are locked in a familiar tussle over who is to blame. When they get some free time from that, they do not forget to preach to us about how to cope with what we should not be coping with, by rights. When we get too angry, they shut schools and distribute relief materials — masks in this case.

But all of this is just a temporary fix. Like my quick getaway. The truth is, there is no escaping Delhi’s toxicity.