November 24, 2020

New Delhi: living in a city where you breathe poison | Society

“After three days forced to be at home, you feel you are in jail. It's a hell for a young child, ”says Poojita Shekhar Singh, after leaving her three-year-old son at a school in Noida, a suburb outside New Delhi. Although it belongs to another State, this industrial neighborhood was also paralyzed by the toxic cloud that loomed over the capital from India last weekend, forcing millions of people to lock themselves in lime and song to avoid breathing outside air.

"Delhi has become a gas chamber, (…) we must protect ourselves," tweeted the city's mayor, Arvind Kejriwal, on Friday, November 1. Two days later, the concentration of fine particles (PM2.5), harmful to the lungs, reached 600 micrograms per cubic meter, multiplying by 24 the level recommended by the World Health Organization. To mitigate a public health emergency which puts some 20 million inhabitants at risk, the authorities distributed five million masks, diverted dozens of flights, further limited the circulation of vehicles and paralyzed industrial activities with fuels and construction. Experts, however, criticize the lack of implementation of measures that have never been met.

In households, families also sought to isolate themselves from the toxic cloud, but barriers to the air depend heavily on the purchasing level. “We have purifiers in every room and we take Dushyant to an expensive school that he also has. But not everyone can afford that luxury. Most children breathe toxic air almost 24 hours a day, ”says Shekhar Singh, pointing to New Delhi, already lightened by the low wind of recent days, although a brown shade still delineates buildings and temples.

The air is a little lighter, but it seems to carry satulus, a thick sand, first thing in the morning, when Mona goes to work. “We do not have purifiers at home or use any special remedy at this time. There are other problems to deal with, ”says this housekeeper, who says she doesn't need protection from toxic smoke even though her father died of asthma a few weeks ago. Her scarce 125 euros per month working in three homes are not enough to pay for an air purifier, something more expensive than the income she adds with her husband: 250 euros per month. “But my children do wear masks for two years. They are given by a social worker. They use them for a week, then play with them and end up losing them. ”

“The most effective are the purifiers and, if you have to leave the house, the Vogmask N-99 mask, which also lasts three months, but I understand that they are not affordable. In the last case, the N-95 ”, explains the requested pediatrician Nitin Verma, who has been attending patients in his clinic in New Delhi for 30 years. Not only is the highest range of masks out of reach of most of the capital's population. If the best costs more than 38 euros, the cheapest can be found for 1.5 euros; but it is barely effective for a week. This was what the authorities distributed at the beginning of the crisis among the most vulnerable population. "People have to use some model," says Dr. Verma, "the danger is not only for the health of the elderly and children, fetuses under three months are also at risk of malformations."

“The weekend has been tiring. There were about 200 admissions for respiratory infections and we have treated more than 50 patients daily with difficulties to inhale, ”says Zara Hasim, an emergency physician at Apollo Hospital, in the heart of New Delhi, where oxygen, hydrocortisone and different nebulizers without stopping the elderly and, above all, minors. “Under these conditions, only the best masks protect something. The only solution is not to leave home, ”summarizes Zara.

"Pollution still does not attract votes"

Pallavi Aiyar.

Pallavi Aiyar.

P. Gosálvez / E. Sánchez

Indian writer Pallavi Aiyar grew up in New Delhi and for 15 years was a correspondent in Beijing. From his experience in two of the most polluted cities on the planet, he was born Choked (Suffocated), published in 2016, an essay on horseback between memories and journalistic research.

Read the interview here

But not even some residents of the capital are safe at home. Not far from the hospital, hundreds of families live in chamizos on the banks of the Yamuna River, inert by the spills that pollute it. Like them, outside the measures against pollution and without resources to protect themselves, another 350,000 families inhabit 750 slums of the capital, according to the Government. About two million people completely exposed to the toxic air of the city every winter. (…) "I no longer wear the mask because there is no need and they laugh at me," says Ankit, who ends up reluctantly putting it after talking with this journalist. Like him, hundreds of infants leave the classrooms of the school near the fetid river with their masks in the backpacks the first day of school after the serious episode of pollution.

The stoppage of construction work decreed by the Supreme Court will last a few more days, until mid-November (the dust from the works is one of the major pollutants, along with transport emissions and the burning of agricultural waste). “Most of the workers understand the measures, but they say that they always lose them,” explains Priyanka Yadav, architect. Without work since the veto was announced, many take advantage of these dates to visit their families at their birthplaces. The National Green Court, responsible for ensuring environmental issues, suggested last Tuesday to add a stipend to compensate construction employees for losses these days. But the workers prefer to work in secret since the proposed wage would be equivalent to their official salary and would not compensate for the daily overtime, paid in black, that they work.

The only ones who follow with meticulous obedience the recommendation to wear masks are the officials and security forces of New Delhi. Among them, 5,000 groups of volunteers deployed throughout the city to raise awareness about the veto to the circulation of vehicles with license plates ending in odd or even numbers on alternative days. At a junction near the Chhattapur metro, south of the capital, the group led by Saurabh Shrivastava stops a car to inform the driver that the odd ones can be fined 50 euros today. "He was driving a woman," Saurabh excuses himself, stepping aside – the rule excludes the elderly and women, so they don't travel on unsafe public transportation. Minutes later, however, he stops another utility with a license plate ending in nine, but also lets him continue after a brief verbal warning. "It was an emergency," he justifies again.

In Beijing the air is blown clean

Chinese citizens with masks, in March 2018 in Beijing.

Chinese citizens with masks, in March 2018 in Beijing. Getty

Macarena Vidal Lyi, Beijing

Selling purifiers in China is no longer the business it was. In 2018, the air cleaning devices generated 28% less revenue than in 2017. This year, the fall will be, according to the Shanghai Association for the Protection of the Environment, another 10%. The "fault", the skies noticeably more blue.

The nightmare of winter 2013 begins to be far away, when PM2.5 fine particle contamination pulverized all records: a concentration of 973 micrograms per square meter. Almost 40 times the limits that WHO considers acceptable for health. The images of a Beijing turned into an involuntary scenario of Blade Runner in what was nicknamed the "Airpocalipsis" they went around the world: masked pedestrians and swallowed buildings by what state media euphemistically defined as "fog."

Studies on the effects of that almost chewable pollution multiplied, denouncing the costs for health and the economy: one million annual lives in respiratory diseases and losses of 35,000 million dollars (about 32,000 million euros), according to the Chinese University From Hong Kong. Before being categorically censored, the documentary Under the dome He highlighted the consequences of environmental neglect before 200 million Internet users.

The bad image in front of the world made the Government, which until then had put itself in profile, to punch the table. In 2014, Prime Minister Li Keqiang declared "the war on pollution." The orders to do something, whatever it was, came from the top, including the president, Xi Jinping.

And as every time an order from the highest levels is received, a barrage of measures has arrived at all levels, national, provincial and local. In 2013, the Plan for the Control and Prevention of Pollution recognized coal as a pollutant and proposed to abandon it and encourage “clean” energies. It was probably the most decisive measure of all.
Factory closures, new standards for vehicles, draconian winter plans for heating … All reinforced with a sharp rise in fines and inspections to ensure compliance.

Some measures were of doubtful utility, such as the prohibition in the capital of lighting barbecues in the streets: the once ubiquitous smell of lamb skewer of the Beijing streets is already only perceived in specialized restaurants. Others, such as replacing coal boilers with natural gas, were obeyed so rapidly that in some outlying towns they made the change before a sufficient gas supply arrived. The neighbors had to resort to lifelong braziers not to die of cold.

One of the principles of Xi's thinking, enshrined in the Constitution of the Communist Party since 2017, is the "ecological civilization." And the slogans imposed have begun to give results: in 2018, China lived its least polluted year in recent times and 20 cities more than the previous year met the national air cleaning standards.
But it is a slow advance, with two steps forward and one step back. Pollution in Hebei Province (a star of improvements) increased this year. Neither Beijing has the blue skies guaranteed: in the parade of October 1, which commemorated the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic, the old “fog” was seen again.

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