India's poor, on frontlines of polarising pollution war
India's poor, on frontlines of polarising pollution war

Air purifiers for the affluent, masks for the not so rich and inhaling polluted air all day - without literally a breather - for those who can’t afford a roof over their heads. It’s maximum exposure for millions of people who are bearing the brunt of hazardous air quality, say experts.

As the air quality index (AQI) hovers between ‘very poor’ and ‘severe’, slipping into ‘poor’ on better days, the toxic air and hazy skies over the Delhi-NCR region and other parts of India are driving one more wedge between the haves and the have-nots, leaving those forced to live and work in the outdoors vulnerable to pulmonary and other diseases. 

“The class bias is evident when the pollution level peaks,” said Sunita Narain, who heads the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and is a member of the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control). “We can fight pollution only when authorities think about both rich and poor and both join hands in this fight to protect the environment, otherwise the rich can roam in diesel vehicles and use purifiers to protect themselves but the poor face more exposure and do not even have money for treatment,” Narain told PTI. Rickshaw pullers and construction workers are the worst hit.

And 19-year-old Shyam, who recently moved from Darbhanga in Bihar to Delhi to become a rickshaw puller, is proof that pollution hits us all, but some more than others. These days, he said, he feels he pedals with a weight on his chest. The rickshaw is home for Shyam. Rupak, who came to Delhi from Rourkela 30 years ago, escapes into his humble home in east Delhi's Trilokpuri area at night but his fragile health is evidence of the long hours spent outdoors.

Some reports estimate there are 700,000 cycle rickshaws plying on Delhi roads. Then there are construction workers, who not only face prolonged exposure to toxic air but also lose their means of livelihood when the government bans construction activities when pollution levels peak. 

By Uzmi Athar

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