Photos: ‘The Forgotten’ Make For Easy Prey in India’s Smog Capital
‘Pollutistan’ and ‘Smog City’ are just a few names Delhi has been called this week. The National Capital Region, in its current state, is reminiscent of Salman Rushdie’s lines from Haroun and the Sea of Stories – “a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad it had forgotten its name”.
As Delhi transforms into a gas chamber, it seems to have abandoned its homeless. It also seems to have forgotten about the countless residents who discharge their duties or earn their living in the open, spending most of their day outdoors inhaling poison.
Some don fancy face masks, while others rely on cheap surgical masks or handkerchiefs to filter the toxic air in Delhi.
Reports titled ‘Delhi Braces for Airpocalypse’ or ‘Toxic Smog Turns New Delhi Into a Gas Chamber' have instilled enough fear amongst those Dilliwallahs who can afford to invest in air-purifiers or simply stay put in the confines of their homes.
“Same Old Coughing Story”
And then there are people like Dheeraj. We found him seated outside a public dispensary near ISBT Kashmere gate. A former cook at a restaurant, he waits for the doors of a government-supported night shelter or rain basera to open. His belongings stuffed into a backpack, sit next to him.
“At least we have access to doctors and medicines for free here,” he says, as he lists the health problems he has been facing off late. “Khaasi aur aankhon mein jalan hoti hai ,” Dheeraj says, as he pulls out a few medicines prescribed by the dispensary doctors.
‘Between the Devil and the Dead Sea’
Sarvan, 28, is quick to argue that the medicines don’t help. A part-time waiter, he came to Delhi from Bihar’s Samastipur district a few years ago.
“Wahan (Samastipur) ki hawa alag hai, dikkat nai hoti (The air there is much cleaner, it’s easier to breathe),” he says. Sarvan suffers from chest pain and flu-like symptoms due to smog, but unlike Dheeraj, he prefers to sleep in the open.
“I would sleep inside the rain basera, but it gets cramped and there are mosquitoes. Hardly anyone comes to clean the place,” he tells us.
One Good Eye
Lal Baba sits on the pavement and massages his left knee as he watches people go by. He doesn’t ask anyone for assistance, but some passersby leave him a coin or two.
“It’s been 7-8 years since I came to Delhi from Burdwan. I rented a one-room accommodation, but now I’m here all the time,” he says.
Smog has added on to the health problems that the 60-year-old battles. “I only have one eye and the other one burns constantly. For medicines, private doctors will cost me Rs 100-150 so I rely on the local dispensary. The doctors come every morning and are very helpful, but the prescriptions aren’t effective. But what other option do I have?”
Jaggery and Warm Water to The Rescue
We found traffic policeman Narendra Singh struggling to catch his breath as he directed wave after wave of the never-ending deluge of traffic. Since his job requires him to be outdoors all the time, the government has provided him with pollution masks, a necessity the homeless can’t buy.
Desi gur (jaggery) aur garam paani (hot water) is his mantra to surviving in the smog city.
Nazrul Sheikh parks his rickshaw outside Ambedkar University so he can ferry students to the Kashmere Gate metro station.
He’s unfazed by the haze around him. “Zyada farak nai padta kyunki aadat padh gayi hai (It doesn’t bother us because we’re used to driving around in this condition),” he says. His fellow rickshaw-pullers nod in agreement.
From dawn to around 9 am, Ram Veer Singh works as a sugarcane farmer in UP’s Baghpath. He then changes into his uniform and heads to work as a guard at the Ambedkar University in Kashmere Gate from 2-10 pm.
The daily travel from Baghpat to Kashmere Gate and standing at the gates of the varsity for almost eight hours takes a toll on his health. To add to it, Singh does all this in the polluted air. “If this condition persists for long, life expectancy will definitely decrease,” he says, adding that a healthy “desi and shudh” diet can help.
There are several others in the same boat.
Not many who complain about pollution realise that simply staying indoors is a luxury that few can afford. When will the government take equal care of all its citizens?