It was 2am on Sunday in Delhi and a friend and I were travelling in a rickshaw, heading home from a party. It was a hellscape.
The highway was mostly empty, the air a greasy brown. On the shoulder was a group of men standing around a small fire. Ahead of us were trucks spraying the roads with salted effluent, used to keep the dirt in place so it would not spring up into a toxic cloud.
In the Delhi half-marathon that morning 30,000 people ran, some wearing breathing masks, with levels of the most harmful airborne pollutants hovering near 200 – eight times the World Health Organisation’s safe maximum.
All that week and the last, the pollution was the only story in town. My friend had seen a near riot in an upmarket shopping mall as a group of women fought to buy up the last of the air masks. In a hospital, another friend saw smog in the hallways, making all the doctors red-eyed.
We monitored the air pollution compulsively on something that looked like an egg-shaped portable lava lamp, as well as various apps. “It got to 999 which is the highest the app recognised! It’s literally off the charts!!”
To an outsider like me flying in, there was an end-of-days vibe in the (dirty) air. It was like a London pea souper or the inside of one of Blake’s “dark satanic mills.” But what it reminded me most of was a disaster movie. “Armageddon but with better food,” said my friend.
Anyone wanting a glimpse of what it is like to live in a severely climate-compromised city could experience Delhi.
Environmental disaster is no longer in the future; it is here now, in the world’s most polluted capitals, such as Beijing and Delhi. This pollution is a regular occurrence across north India and Pakistan at this time of year as farmers burn post-harvest land and cooler temperatures prevent pollutants from dispersing. Instead they are trapped and sort of hover in the air, like a dirt curtain. Doctors liken the effect to the equivalent of smoking 50 cigarettes in a day.
My body initiated a series of reflexes designed to repel the toxins in the air: a dry, persistent cough, a tight throat and headaches if I spent too long outside. People I met at the party on Saturday night had bloodshot eyes, everyone seemed to have little deep coughs – the sort heavy smokers have.
“So [cough, cough], have you been to [cough] Humayun’s Tomb? [cough]? You ought [cough] – it’s lovely.”
The pollution had its own character and personality – like a super-villain in a Marvel comic. It didn’t move so much as hang around you like a malevolent veil.
It also had – to borrow a phrase from the wine industry – its own mouthfeel. There were notes of coal and tar, with an aftertaste of dirt. In the mouth, the smog felt meaty and dense. I thought of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road where everything was rendered in this palette – a sort of grey, brown haze, everything leeched of colour and light. As well as fresh air, I began to miss the sun’s arc against the sky, the gorgeous golden hour of the sun hitting the buildings and warming the red brick. The way shafts of light play on trees and make even the most straggly branches or unlovely tree sparkle and glow.
We cancelled a jaunt to Varanasi for later in the week, where the air would was even worse. How could that be possible?
The smog will clear, and already there are good days and bad days. After the rain, the air feels better in the lungs. But there is already here the sense that the pollution is the new normal.
The Hindustan Times on Sunday splashed with a good news headline, indicating even our late-night hellscape wasn’t the worst of it. “People in Delhi woke up to the brightest morning in a while on Saturday.” The pollution levels had dropped from “severe” to “poor”. Even then it was still really bad. The sky above us was not blue but brown, and the sun was shrouded except during the dusks, which came early – and then sun then blazed briefly, like an angry turmeric ball – before disappearing again.
As I sat out on a balcony on Monday morning and looked out at the haze, it was almost a shock to see birds soar into the trees – these glorious hawks with their vast, elegant wingspan. That the birds weren’t dropping from the sky and the leaves weren’t withering on their branches seemed in the scheme of things a minor miracle. Breathing out there on the balcony felt almost as if I was drinking something in.
Already the main river of Delhi, the Yamuna, can no longer be really called a river. Pollution has stripped it of all the characteristics that enable it to be defined as a living entity. “It’s not a river, it’s a drain,” said my friend.
For all the talk of India as an emerging superpower, the environmental devastation wrought on Delhi surely acts as a brake on growth.
It’s harder to attract talent to work here. Who wants to get around town wearing a breathing mask? Delhi is classified just below Kabul and Baghdad as a hardship posting by the Australian government. People I spoke to in expat circles told of their family and friends cancelling holidays because of the unpleasantness of the haze.
Yet it is of course the nation’s poorest that bear the full brunt of this climate catastrophe.
According to research published in the Lancet, about 2.5 million Indians die each year from pollution, the highest number in the world. And the majority of people affected are the poor, who cannot afford the air purifiers that retail for around US$400. For many in Delhi the conditions of daily life are so difficult and rough, that this pollution everyone keeps talking about doesn’t even register for the city’s very poor.
They are down in the pits cleaning the latrines or sleeping rough in the increasingly cold nights. A man called Sohail Abbasi told one of the local papers: “My job is to collect waste from the localities. I deal with dirt on a daily basis anyway. Once I’m out of the stinking pits, this polluted air is a luxury.”
And Mohammad Shareff, one of the city’s rough sleepers, said: “It’s getting cold here, I need the blankets. I don’t care how polluted the air is, at least there is air.”
At least there is air.