Cover Society

Delhi dystopia: It’s that time again when the capital dons its designer masks

A man exercises on a smoggy day after the Diwali in New Delhi

A man exercises on a smoggy day after the Diwali in New Delhi   | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

For many Delhiites, pollution doesn’t ‘feel’ like an active concern; it’s more an abstract

At a crowded traffic intersection near Delhi’s Preet Vihar, as the light turns red, out pops a young duo from nowhere. The boy, no more than 10 or 11, is carrying a dholak, a strap around his neck holding it in place, and he clutches two sticks to play it with. A girl, even younger, does backflips and cartwheels on the street, contorting her body to the delight of the gathered motorists.

It’s two days after Diwali; the air quality index (AQI) has dipped to 428 — ‘severe/hazardous’. Unfazed, the kids do their quick show and, as the light turns green, they disappear into the shadows.

There’s a haze in the air that tells us winter is approaching. And there’s the crisp, grey smell. It looks like there’s a screen in front of the sun, adding a soft filter to the light.

It would actually look quite pretty if I didn’t know that I was looking at what is literally poison in the air. As I write this, almost a week after Diwali, we’re at an AQI of 423.

A few hours ago, the Delhi Traffic Police Twitter handle put out an alert: “DELHI – AQI: 384. Cat: Very Poor. Advice: Respiratory illness on prolonged exposure.”

Their warnings have been shuttling between ‘very poor’ and ‘severe’ these past few days. It’s saying something that ‘very poor’ is met with relief in Delhi.

I make my way to India Gate. It’s a holiday — Bhai Dooj, a festival celebrating the brother-sister bond — and the lawns around the gate are packed. Children are running around, hopping from swing to swing, all the while breathing in toxins that will no doubt affect them much later.

A vague outline of Rashtrapati Bhavan is visible in the background. Around India Gate there are instant photographers hounding tourists. There are toys. Nimbu-paani. Cheap sunglasses. Lots and lots of littering. I count 30 people taking selfies, then I lose track.

No stopping them

Diwali, in late October or early November, is Delhi’s festive period; people’s spirits are up. They’re off work, and they spend time with friends and family, doing fun things, like driving to India Gate for ice-cream, or planning picnics for the cooler afternoons. My taxi driver assures me that the bad air isn’t stopping anyone from any of this even now. But I can visibly see far lesser traffic than earlier years. “It’s because of all those new roads,” he assures me. “Zindagi mein har sukh nahi mil sakta,” he says, “You can’t get everything in life.”



In the early 90s, when I was still in school, Diwali used to be fun. Lots of sweets, presents, relatives handing out envelopes with money. All the houses in the neighbourhood lit up. Then there were the firecrackers. While my mother stayed locked up inside the house thanks to her chronic asthma, the rest of the family would gather for a ceremonial round of cracker-bursting; nothing too excessive.

Then we’d all go for a quick drive to survey the aftermath of Diwali; the post-cracker debris strewn all over the roads, maybe a small fire or two here and there, lit up with the remains. The air was bad, no doubt, but it was never anything approaching ‘emergency’ levels. At school, we would have those boring NGO-types showing up and lecturing us on the harmful effects of crackers. It seemed a little alarmist at the time, but most of us heard them out, either limiting our crackers, or eliminating them altogether. They warned us that 20 years from today, we won’t be able to breathe.

Well, it is 20 years later now, and we literally cannot breathe.

Shoppers wear pollution masks in Sadar Bazar, New Delhi

Shoppers wear pollution masks in Sadar Bazar, New Delhi   | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

Whose fault is it? That’s where the adult version of the much-loved childhood game of passing-the-parcel begins. ‘Why should I stop bursting crackers when the farmers in Punjab and Haryana are burning stubble?’ becomes ‘Why should I stop burning stubble just for one month when Delhi’s cars are a bigger menace?’ becomes ‘Why should I ration my car use when the city’s industries are spewing smoke?’ It’s a vicious loop. No one backs down, no one wins, everyone loses.

Remember the odd-even scheme attempted by the Delhi Government a couple of years ago? It was a minor inconvenience, but we missed the forest for the trees. Instead of talking about it as one among many solutions, we focussed all our energy on the inconvenience and the traffic.

Anti religion?

Now, the pollution crisis is being framed as an infringement of religious freedom. That not bursting crackers goes against tradition. So this year we had people bursting crackers purely out of spite, to defy the court order. Ironically, they wore masks while doing so.

In the lifetime I have spent here, the one thing I’ve learnt about Delhi is that you cannot tell its people what to do. This year, as the permitted period of bursting crackers — 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. — expired, the sound and light show continued long into the night. No one cared.


There was a genuine attempt at making things better a couple of years ago, but that was only because the smog was so thick we could see the problem. This time, while the air remains as toxic, if not more, we can see across the street.

For many people, pollution doesn’t ‘feel’ like an active concern; it’s more an abstract that may or may not be harmful many years down the line. Even today many people say “it’s the media blowing it up.” Reports that Delhi is the most polluted city in the world are often met with bemusement at most.


After India Gate, I decide to see a whole other kind of Delhi: Khan Market. While the two are a mere 2.6 km apart, both in the fancy part of Central Delhi, the difference is stark. India Gate attracts everyone, with wealth not a denominator. Khan Market, on the other hand, is posh. It is synonymous with ‘Lutyens’ Delhi’, the mocking epithet used to describe the city’s navel-gazing elite.

While the toxic air impacts everyone, privilege can help you dodge it a bit — or at any rate make you believe you can.

Walkers at Lodhi garden

Walkers at Lodhi garden   | Photo Credit: AP

Khan Market doesn’t seem as uncaring and easy as India Gate. Here, even the policemen are wearing N99 masks. Remember those? And the swine flu panic of 2009, when the H1N1 pandemic hit India.

In Khan Market, there’s a definite, lingering sense of anxiety; every fifth person I spot is wearing a black mask covering nose and face. There are designer masks too: with colourful mosaic patterns serving to decorate a necessary accessory. While the average N95 or N99 mask (the latter eliminating more particles than the former) cost around ₹250, the designer masks sell for well over four-digit figures.

People are walking hurriedly, coughing exaggeratedly and hoping to get to the next showroom without inhaling too much outside air. Indoors, everyone has ‘air-purifiers’ now. They’re bloody expensive, but they purportedly clean out the air, absorbing all the trash. People I know, privileged people like me, have limited their ‘outdoor time’ to the minimum. Some have left the city altogether. The wealthy Delhiite settling in Goa or the hills of Uttarakhand is the new exodus.

Sealed homes and cars

Lives have changed subtly in ways that we are not even conscious of. Masks and air purifiers have become part of shopping lists the way fans and bedsheets are. What you grab on your way out of the house has changed: cell phone, wallet and now, mask.Parents automatically check the US embassy AQI readings before deciding if Munna can go outdoors to play football today. The affluent step out of tightly sealed homes into tightly sealed cars, insulating themselves as much as possible from the eye-smarting ‘outside’.

So many people have now embraced the virtues of indoor plants, setting up nurseries inside their homes to clean out the air. That’s just how we function: we cut trees outside, and put pretty little flowerpots in our homes.

Air-purifiers are as ubiquitous in winter as ACs in summer. Some of them track pollution in each room. Sensors connected to phone apps is how the paranoid do it — anybody who doesn’t have the sensor app is told they must be ‘in denial’.

Periodic Google alerts on our phone remind us of the air outside: ‘Smoky’ is the persistent reminder. Some families have gone to the extent of choosing to home-school their children through the ‘airpocalypse’ months, while schools have been increasing vacation time during this period.

Some people even duct-tape their windows for good measure. But try as you might to shut Delhi out, it sneaks in through the cracks. Not even social media is an escape: timelines are an endless scroll of commiserations and ‘be safe’ messages.

Many of us spent the past week trying to decipher what the court-mandated ‘green crackers’ even meant, just for kicks. A Google search auto-completes to “green cracker kya hai?” But that’s largely it; we’ve not changed anything in the actual world. As I write this, the readings have dropped to 395; from ‘severe’ to merely ‘very poor’. Breathe. Everything is okay.

The freelance culture writer from New Delhi wishes he’d studied engineering instead.

Related Topics
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Aug 5, 2020 12:32:59 AM |

Next Story