Over Delhi. Credit: souravdas/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Over Delhi. Credit: souravdas/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Featured image credit: souravdas/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

I recently moved out of Delhi. The air made it easier to decide to leave. What I’ve learnt is that a source of amusement to many friends in the country’s south is actually a nightmare up north, where a five-minute stroll outside can leave you with an irritated throat, watering eyes and the feeling that something is burning its way through your nose. In the week right after Deepavali, you woke up in the morning smelling something toasty; the view through your window was always more orange than it ought to be. You couldn’t go to and return from work without feeling short of breath – irrespective of how you travelled.

The effects of the disaster are undoubtedly classist – and sometimes more than they need to be. Recently, Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal announced that air purifiers would be installed at a few major traffic intersections around Delhi to clean up the air. Sarath Guttikunda, a scientist and environmental activist, wrote for The Wire about how insipid the idea is. His article highlights the vacuity of Kejriwal’s desperation, that he would resort to a downstream solution that would affect so few people in the city instead effecting something upstream – at the sources – that would help everyone. What about those who can’t afford air filters? What about those who live on the roads?

The scale of changes that will have to be implemented implies that Delhi’s wintertime pollution problem will maintain its classist manifestation for a few years at least – assuming that the changes are implemented at all. To quote Guttikunda, they are broadly to increase the quality of public transportation and reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills. Now, the issue here is that – assuming you’re a middle-class person with a job that pays 25k to 75k a month – unless your boss is perfectly reasonable and considerate (or is a Kejriwal under pressure to be seen to act), you’re not going to get time off work unless the pollution makes you really sick (i.e. enough to have you bed-ridden for the day).

Delhi has four popular public transportation options: auto, bus, metro and cab (Ola/Uber). There are also rickshaws but they operate over shorter distances. Only the metro is immune to traffic jams; the others contribute to and are stuck in one regularly, especially when going from south Delhi, east Delhi and Gurgaon to central Delhi in the morning and the other way in the evening. If you want to get to work on time, the metro is your best option. Even then, however, given the number of stations together with the size of the city, your odds of finding a metro station that’s close to home as well as close to where you work are really low. You’re going to have to walk, or take an auto/rickshaw, through the crappy air over the course of a few arduous minutes.

What’re these daily minutes of exposure going to do, you ask? Deepak Natarajan, a cardiologist in Delhi, has a list of diseases likelier to beset you after short-term exposure to heightened PM2.5 levels:

  1. Acute myocardial infarction
  2. Unstable angina
  3. Increased likelihood of heart attacks by 8-26%
  4. Heightened risk of thrombosis
  5. Endothelial dysfunction,

and a host of other cardiovascular ailments. As Natarajan writes, air pollution kills more people every year than AIDS and malaria. The next time you’re walking through the smog, feel free to imagine you’re walking through a cloud of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

Circling back to the fact that there are no laws securing anyone’s choice to not work – or at least to not have to visit the workplace – with that bilious overhang: consider the plight of journalists. Reporters among them have an especial obligation to spend time on the outside, and the more seasoned among whom hardly ever think about the pollution as a vocational hazard. It’s a job that requires a modicum of physiological fitness that’s simultaneously almost never discussed. In fact, the conversation is swept away by the pretext of a ‘reporter allowance’. I used to receive one at The Hindu, a Rs 1,600 to cover intra-city travelling expenses. But it could cover very little that my salary (then at Rs 30,000) already hadn’t. And this was in Chennai, where the cost of living is lower than that in Delhi.

(Just the way poverty makes all the small, niggling issues in life seem more maddening, a rapidly shrinking set of class-sensitive solutions available to those labouring in wintertime Delhi can drive people similarly close to the edge: such as auto-drivers refusing rides to certain areas, a perpetual shortage of buses and surge pricing. We all know these are not immediately fixable, so how about doing a Kejriwal and heading downstream to check in on your local news-bearers?)

The reasonableness and consideration of your supervisors and employers matters in this context because Delhi’s pollution becomes easier to live through the more privileged you are. And if your editor isn’t considerate enough, then she’s probably assuming pollution affects you the way it does her, which isn’t good if she lives closer to central Delhi. Many media houses*, almost all government offices and all the more-genteel things are located towards the centre, a.k.a. Lutyens’ Delhi, which is marked by open spaces, abundant greenery, its radial outlay and wide roads – all contributing to the reduced prevalence of dust. The cost of living drops as you move further away from this area (with a marked drop once you exit the radial areas). This means the hierarchy in a journalist’s workplace is likely to be mirrored by each employee’s residence’s proximity to Lutyens’ Delhi – evidently, a proximity by proxy to healthiness.

And privilege, as has often been the case, often blinds those who enjoy it to the travails of those who don’t. In this case, it is established by having access to the following (at a cost that doesn’t burn holes in clothing):

  1. A house in a clean neighbourhood away from dusty roads
  2. Abundant greenery in your immediate neighbourhood
  3. An air-conditioner
  4. Air filters/purifiers/fresheners
  5. A car to commute in
  6. A proximate workplace
  7. Clean, well-maintained public spaces
  8. Sufficient time and/or resources to keep the house clean
  9. Affordable medicines and medical assistance

Without access to them, daily life can be quite disorderly, unfulfilling and hard to establish a routine with – especially if you can’t really live dirty without such a state of affairs taking a toll on your productivity and peace of mind. As a result, Delhi’s pollution imposes high entry barriers for healthy living on its residents – barriers that become less surmountable the farther away from the city’s centre you are (to add to which you spend longer to get to the city’s centre). And if you’re a reporter, you’re likelier to have it well and truly harder than most others of your means, thanks (in sum) to central Delhi being cleaner, areas farther more removed from it cheaper, air pollution being easier to live through the more privileged you are, and there being no laws to secure your right to a clean working environment.

To address these issues and even out inequities, reporters in wartime wintertime Delhi should receive an additional allowance as well as shorter and more flexible working hours. Other staffers should also be allowed to work from where they feel comfortable apart from receiving an allowance that will help cover medical expenses, to begin with. (These measures make immediate sense for online news establishments comfortable with decentralised work environments – but they aren’t to exonerate newspaper offices that are used to having everyone work out of a common newsroom.) Those who can’t or won’t should be kept mindful of what they’re asking their journalists to give up and compensate them accordingly as and when the opportunities arise. And even so, no amount of fondness or pride for situating themselves in the national capital can save journalism establishments from the steady toll the city is taking on their journalists.

*Offices are becoming more spread out – but that doesn’t matter.

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