What It's Like To Live Where the Air Is Toxic

Deteriorating air quality in India's capital territory is the new normal.

IN EARLY NOVEMBER, smog levels peaked in Delhi, India. The levels of particulate matter reached 999—the highest machines could read. Smoke and fumes from unregulated crop-burning across northern India, factories, cars, and even fire-crackers set off for the Diwali festival of lights had combined to form a choking cocktail. The Chief Minister likened the city to a gas chamber.

Despite stiff opposition from many quarters, the city readied itself for the Annual Half Marathon. The event registered a record turnout.

I arrived in Delhi a week later. Air quality levels remained between ‘poor’ and ‘very poor’ although the smog had reduced. The extended amounts of time I spent outside photographing led to some chest pains and also made me feel dizzy. Upon returning from construction sites and the Yamuna river banks, I frequently coughed up blackish sputum.

But this was nothing compared to what others told me they faced even just a week back, from nausea to severe throat and eye irritation. It is widely considered that living in Delhi cuts one’s average lifespan by more than 4 years. Masks are a necessity to block out the particulate matter that settles deep inside the lungs, causing irreparable damage.

Particularly vulnerable is the sizeable population of Delhi’s migrant labourers who sleep outdoors. Most of these people that I talked to cannot afford masks or were not sufficiently attuned to their necessity.

Delhi today is a quagmire of administrative impasses, and it is the people who suffer most.

You can see more of Datto's work on his website.

Lead ImageArmy personnel take an early morning run amid heavy smog on Raisina Hill. PHOTOGRAPH BY ARKO DATTO, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

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