Fri, Nov 10, 2017 - Page 6 News List

New Delhi’s poor bearing the brunt of deadly smog


New Delhi residents walk along a road amid heavy smog in the Indian capital yesterday.

Photo: AFP

Rickshaw driver Sanjay can only afford a handkerchief to shield his face from the smog-filled streets of New Delhi, even as many residents rush to buy protective masks to combat the toxic menace.

Better off inhabitants of the world’s most polluted capital are swarming sellers of face masks — costing more than the 300 rupees (US$5) that Sanjay earns in a day — and high-tech air purifiers that could easily cost his annual wage.

New Delhi authorities on Wednesday ordered all 6,000 schools to shut until Sunday after choking smog descended on northern India, while people with breathing difficulties have been told to stay indoors.

On top of expensive European air purifiers, inhabitants are turning to nose filters, indoor plants and even yoga to mitigate the crisis, but doctors say that none of it would be enough to prevent deaths in the metropolis of 20 million people battling a pollution crisis for the second year.

Some streets in the Indian capital have recorded pollution levels 40 times the WHO recommended safe level since Monday, with still weather and the annual post-harvest burning of crop stubble in Punjab fueling the crisis.

Rickshaw drivers, street vendors and tens of thousands of homeless families endure the full force of pollution that doctors warn can do irreparable damage to the heart, brain and lungs, especially in children.

Sanjay, who like many Indians goes by one name, spends his days waiting for passengers, breathing in the poisonous mist so thick that often he cannot see the other side of the road.

“I don’t have a mask. The masks are too expensive. I have a hankie,” he said, taking out a cotton square.

However, he knows that putting the rag over his nose and mouth does next to nothing against the onslaught of fine particles — so small they penetrate deep into the lungs — that sear his eyes and throat.

“My eyes are fire,” he said, pulling back an eyelid to expose an irritated, bloodshot iris.

Laborer M.K. Sharma also cannot afford a smog mask.

He thought the scarf wrapped around his face — a method favored by motorcyclists and street workers — made things “a little better,” but he was not sure.

“It is better than nothing,” Sharma said, hopefully.

Rupesh Kumar paid US$4 for a cheap, poorly fitted fabric mask.

It was all he could afford.

“I want to save myself from Delhi,” Kumar said.

Nearby, affluent New Delhiites jostled in a long line outside a small shop selling neoprene masks, fitted with a carbon mesh designed to filter out the noxious particles.

Panic rose from the crowd as the vendor lowered the shutters, announcing most sizes had sold out.

“Oh my goodness, you’re finished? This is a catastrophe,” said Sue, an expatriate woman who declined to give her second name, her young daughter by her side.

Those lucky enough to secure a mask ripped open the packaging and put it on their children on the sidewalk.

One elderly Indian woman looked distressed upon learning a mask cost 2,500 rupees, about US$40.

“This is really too much. I cannot deal with this,” she said, shaking her head.

At a nearby shop, office worker Apurva, covering her mouth with her sleeve, purchased two air purifiers to complement the one already at home.

“Every room needs one because it is that crazy,” Apurva said, referring to the high-end machines that cost anything between US$150 and US$1,000.

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