I still remember my first day in India. I was shocked by the way I could stare at the Sun, without getting my eyes burned. It was November 18 of 2016, less than one month after the Diwali celebrations took place and Delhi experienced the deadliest levels of air pollution in three years. According to the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), the AQI overall across the city was 500+.
The blanket of haze and smog covered Delhi and nearby states for over 3 months. Even the Taj Mahal was spotted with a dense smoke around it, getting lots of tourists frustrated. I remember going to work everyday in an auto-rickshaw covering my nose, my face and thinking: “okay, this is India”. I couldn’t grow my nails, otherwise a black grime would easily get accumulated underneath it. Every time that I washed my clothes and kept them on the hostel’s terrace, they used to get dirty and dusty even before getting dry. And these are not very serious matters, but imagine what it’s doing to our lungs.
As a young woman from Brazil, country that I was born and lived my entire life, being in a place like India has it’s perks. Even that we face similar problems due to air pollution, the proportion of them are worst in the land of masala. You can actually feel, see and smell all the years you are losing to air pollution just by walking on the street. People pissing, spitting and pooping outdoors, waste burning on the side road, open sewage pipes, rats, roaches, etc. For a cleaning freak, it’s a horror show.
I started falling ill right on my first week: sore throat, sinusitis, blocked nose, headache, fatigue and the (un)famous Delhi Belly resulted in non productive days at work. Many of my friends got really sick with dengue fever, food poisoning and unknown bacterial infections as well. After 4 months in India for the first time, luckily I didn’t had to call upon my travel insurance, but finding a way to the hospital is a common routine for most of my friends living here, both indians and expats. And this is no surprise: Delhi is the most polluted among mega cities (more than 14 million population), and remains the worst major Asian city for PM2.5 air pollution.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), indoor and outdoor air pollution is the major cause of disease and death in the world, contributing to 3 million premature deaths worldwide every year. In India, it has become a public health and economic crisis: 1.2 million deaths due to outdoor air pollution every year, costing 3% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to the World Bank. Data from WHO shows that 10 of world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India, which makes a lot of sense considering the issues that the country faces with stray dogs, cattle and monkeys, roaming around urban areas and making the lack of sanitation a problem much more worst.
Once you start living here, you realize why India owns the world’s highest death rate from respiratory diseases, with heart condition being the leading cause of death. Air pollution is the first environmental risk factor for all the leading causes of death and disabilities combined. The youngest, the oldest and the poorest are the most vulnerable urban populations, causing irreversible damage to children’s health.
Now, it has been almost one year since the last Diwali and I am already seeing the changes in the weather and on my health. The festival season has started, along with the fireworks and stubble burning in states nearby. This means that a dense and gray smog has began to hunt the city, keeping our eyes away from the sun. So get your air filter mask: it’s the airpocalypse.