Death by Breath

Delhi’s air is horribly polluted. And even though I had known this for years, I did not always wear a mask when doing sports outdoors, and often didn’t bother to move my air purifier from the sleeping room to the living room when I was lazing around on the couch.

This went on until I started feeling a heavy weight on my chest when I was out on the streets. And during fitness class, I felt like I couldn’t suck in enough air into my lungs. The further the winter advanced, the thicker the toxic cloud over Delhi became, smelling like a mixture of a welder’s shop, burnt coffee and a chemical factory.


My face mask after a day of commuting on the bicycle and a sport’s class in Lodhi Garden

When looking at the fine particulate matter  PM2.5 – particles so small they can be ingested deep into the lungs and cause cancer -, Delhi is the most polluted city in the world, according to a compilation of data by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Three times worse than Beijing.

The culprits are: emissions from Delhi’s 8.5 million vehicles (especially bad: old diesel trucks, which should not enter the city, but still do), construction dust, brick kilns, coal factories, burning of crop stubble in farms around the city, sand from the deserts.

So it’s clear what should be done: Scale up the public transport system, slash diesel subsidies, make parking expensive, regulate factories effectively, enforce rules against stubble burning, cover material at construction sites, clean the streets instead of just swiping the dust from one end to the other.


New masks, will last for 1000 hours. I am not leaving the house without.

Delhi’s High Court observed that the air pollution levels in the national capital have reached “alarming” proportions and it was akin to “living in a gas chamber”. It directed the politicians to now, finally, ultimately, act on the threat the foul air poses in the world’s fifth largest megacity.

The next day, the Delhi government announced that from January 1st, odd-numbered cars will be allowed to ply on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, while even-numbered vehicles will run on the other days. (Single female drivers might be excluded, so will ambulances and police cars and taxis).  Schools shall remain closed. Factories moved.

After that, for the first time, I heard a public outcry. So far the vast majority of Delhi’s elite didn’t talk about the toxic air. Air purifiers and mask were something foreigners bought. And only a couple of news channels and newspapers reported extensively. Now, that their everyday life is immediately affected, the people around me start talking about air.


Left: unused filter of the air purifier in my bedroom. Right: used filter.


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