The eyes itch. The nostrils sting. You start breathing deep, gulping in large amounts of the acrid, smoke-laden air. Your lungs burn. The foul air is so thick you can almost taste the bitterness on your tongue. You look up…and see nothing. Just the hazy blanket of smog. The sun is just a pale disc on the dark, brooding sky. You hear vehicles passing through the near-invisible streets. People walk past, just metres away, and all you can see are silhouettes. It looks like a scene straight out of an apocalyptic movie. But this is very real. This is north India in winters. And this is at the heart of the unfolding story of India in an ever-growing war against air pollution. It’s the story of the evil that put masks on Indian faces long before the world was convulsed by the coronavirus.
Delhi-NCR may get all the media attention for its notorious air pollution, but the grim fact is that close to a quarter of India’s population—around 258 million—living in the Gangetic plains risk losing about nine years of their lives due to high pollution levels, says an Air Quality Life Index 2020 report by the Energy Policy Institute of the University Of Chicago. Only Bangladesh is worse than us on a country-level assessment. Air pollution, the report says, is a bigger killer than the raging COVID-19 pandemic.