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Delhi Air Pollution: Graded Response Action Plan leaves the poor on their own 

Delhi Air Pollution: A walk through any of the city’s slums lays bare the disproportional impact of Delhi’s polluted air.

By B. Mohita
New Update
Delhi Air Pollution: Graded Response Action Plan leaves the poor on their own 

Delhi Air Pollution Ground Report: A walk through any of the city’s slums lays bare the disproportional impact of Delhi’s polluted air. The tragedy is that there is a significant difference in how residents and government look at it. This perspective underlines the class realities of urban India and its policies. When asked about the consequences of the deadly air he breathes all day, 35-year-old Rizwan, a resident of Nizamuddin West slum, said, 

“People living in poverty can't afford to focus on things that aren't visible. It (pollution) does not annoy me like the mosquitoes do. People like you and the consumers also, talk about how harmful pollution is but I cannot afford to sit at home. Who would feed my children if I did?”  

He sells juice in the affluent Nizamuddin East and tells me that I should ask this of the mask-clad rich people drinking juice at his cart, instead. 

Delhi Air Pollution: Severe plus

November 5th, the air quality index escalated to the “severe plus” category. In response, the Sub-Committee for operationalization of the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) escalated its action to Stage-IV of GRAP –‘Severe+’ Air Quality (Delhi’s AQI > 450), with immediate effect in the entire Delhi-NCR to curb air pollution. This is in addition to the restrictive actions mentioned in the previous three stages of GRAP. 

Here, the state’s policy to manage the pollution eludes the low-income groups as lockdowns during COVID-19 eluded migrant workers. In the end, despite everything, ‘it is us who have to suffer regardless’, they say. 

Delhi Air Pollution

As an annual ritual, the Government issued advisories. The advisories ask people to stay at home and keep their windows shut as much as possible. The doctors prescribe the strict and proper use of only “N95 or N99 masks”, and private schools in the capital have switched to online mode. As a precautionary measure, the house people started buying necessary accessories, and the market witnessed a sudden surge in sales of home air purifiers. Curbs and bans have been issued on vehicles and non-essential activities contributing to pollution.

The cost of banning pollution-related activities under the various stages of GRAP largely falls on the unorganised sector and goes unacknowledged in pollution-related policy considerations. However, The policy is silent on the impact of the stringent regulations on the people, and their daily earnings.

Flyover Construction underway
Flyover Construction underway

As per a 2022 report by Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO),  there are an estimated 4.92 million informal workers in Delhi, comprising over 80% of the city's total workforce. Moreover, while data from the 2011 census suggests that the number of homeless people in Delhi stands around 46,000, on the other hand, activists and civil society organisations place the number to be as high as 1.5 to 2 lakh people

Daily wage workers are reporting to work

Here, the government's plea to citizens asking them to stay indoors comes as a cruel joke to Ramesh and Shanti Devi, residents of Moolchand Basti. The basti lies on the Yamuna floodplain near Rajghat. These jhuggis were drowned by the recent Yamuna floods. Ramesh & Shanti Devi and many others live under makeshift arrangements beneath the flyover. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s promised compensation of 10,000 rupees in the aftermath of floods, is yet to reach them. 

“We do odd jobs during the day, depending on the availability of work. Toiling on the streets during the day is our destiny, but the night brings no respite, our children breathe this poisonous air even as they sleep. They ask us to stay indoors, there is no roof for us, where do we go?”

Ramesh & Shanti Devi and many others live under makeshift arrangements beneath the flyover.
Ramesh & Shanti Devi and many others live under makeshift arrangements beneath the flyover.

Fatema and Savitri, two 60-year-old residents of Sanjay colony- a small slum in the South of Delhi, sit next to each other, resting after picking up rags from a nearby heap. They said, “Ye hava toh seh lete hain.” 

Pollution has increased their coughing, and sometimes their eyes water too. However, there are bigger issues–proper drinking water, open drains, mosquitoes– that plague them. They take me to the garbage dump and open drain running near their house instead. “Air pollution, they say will go away, but mosquitoes and dengue kill us every year,” Savitri laments as she tells us about the death of her husband of dengue ten years ago.

“Air pollution, they say will go away, but mosquitoes and dengue kill us every year,”
“Air pollution, they say will go away, but mosquitoes and dengue kill us every year,”

When asked about the impact of banning construction and other activities by the government on daily wage workers, Ram Badan Mahto, a daily wage worker doing odd jobs, has this to say, 

“Kuch nahin, bas gareeb ke pet par laat hai. Thand mein har saal is sheher mein hota hai. Hum dekhte hain bas.” (It is nothing but an assault on the poor’s stomach). 

However, there is a slight awareness in some that the pollution is slowly killing them, worsening their existing state of health. Here, too the prospect of not having food on their plates at the end of the day outweighs all other concerns.

Open drainage breeds mosquitoes, and foul smell
Open drainage breeds mosquitoes, and foul smell

Right to education?

The 10-year-old Heena, a grade 5th student and resident of a basti in Mayur Vihar phase 1, has been taught about the effects of air pollution by her teacher. As part of the government’s measures, schools have shut down till the Diwali festival. She complains as she is already behind the rest of her class as all her books are drowned in the Yamuna floods.

To ‘protect’ herself, Heena religiously wears a surgical mask. She tells me that she coaxed her father to get her the surgical mask, and she is proud of that. On the other hand, her father Rajesh, a driver, has immense gratitude towards his employer for sparing a mask out of a bundle lying in the car. However, Heena does not know that the surgical mask will not protect her from pollution, as only N95 or N99 masks, if worn properly could. But Rajesh cannot afford them.

The 10-year-old Heena, a grade 5th student and resident of a basti in Mayur Vihar phase 1.
The 10-year-old Heena, a grade 5th student and resident of a basti in Mayur Vihar phase 1.

Kids have their schools off. Private school students can manage through online classes, but education in government schools is suffering. Who must be held responsible?

Disproportionate cost

As per a Lancet study from 2019, Delhi recorded the highest per-capita economic loss due to air pollution in India. The Health impacts and premature deaths owing to air pollution in Delhi are well documented. Much has already been written about the gaps and lapses in pollution control measures which spring into action as the capital chokes with visible smog every year. But as has been established by past studies, the air quality index remains alarmingly poor throughout the year. Even if we keep aside the overall effectiveness of pollution control measures, what is largely absent from the discourse is the human costs of these measures, and how disproportionate they are in addressing the problem.

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