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Delhi's Air Quality Crisis: Women Bear the Brunt

An In-Depth Look at How Delhi's Air Quality Crisis Disproportionately Affects Women's Health and Lifestyle.

By Nitya Choubey
New Update

Delhi's Air Quality - Noori Bibi
Noori Bibi, a migrant rag-picker, picking plastic bottles from trash bags at Mandi House, Delhi

"Mahilao ke exercise ka samay 1 p.m. se 4 p.m. hai." (The time for women to exercise is from 1 p.m. to 4 pm.)

This statement is displayed on a drenched green-colored signboard, visible to Prof. Teena, a faculty member of Urban Affairs at Ambedkar University. Unexpected drizzling on November 27 in Delhi cleared the skies and improved visibility. The board is mounted on the fence of a triangular public park near New Delhi Railway Station, a park that was earlier frequented by women from various classes, until a Delhi government advisory circulated, asking residents to remain indoors.

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Delhi recorded the season's highest AQI of 468 on November 3, which falls under the 'severe' category. On November 26, Delhi's Air Quality Index was still 389, under the 'very poor' category. A healthy AQI is anything below 50. The November pollution in the city further reduced the presence of women in public parks, who would cluster together for evening walks and yoga sessions. Like any other metropolis in the country, Delhi provides its male citizens better access to public places and health infrastructure. Pollution adds to this gender disparity in the city's public spaces.

"On one hand, I consider getting an air purifier instead of coughing and visiting the clinic monthly. On the other, I will not have any air purifier when I step out for lectures. I cannot always be indoors," said Prof. Teena. After the usual November smog began covering Delhi's cityscape, sales of air purifiers ramped up. Many families, like that of the professor, do not mind spending 20,000 for good air. However, not all 78 lakh women living in the city are dealing with Delhi's air quality crisis the same way.

The Homeless

One of the most vulnerable groups to pollution are the 16,000 homeless, roughly 10,000 of whom are women. During winters, a larger number of homeless take to the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board’s (DUSIB) Rain Baseras. Fifteen rescue teams work from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. across the capital to get homeless people to one of the 196 designated shelter homes, The Millennium Post reports. But sometimes, the homeless person herself avoids these shelters in fear of brawls, sexual assault, theft, or diseases. Sleeping outside on footpaths and bypasses, the shelter-less get exposed to the pollution all night.

Noori Bibi is a 51-year-old Bengali migrant. She has been touring Delhi’s Mandi House to pick empty Bisleri bottles from community parks and public dumping yards for 28 years now. On nights when she does not find space to sleep inside her semi-pakka shed with the rest of the family, she volunteers to sleep near her workspace. Night shelters are an option for her, which she voluntarily decides not to take.

“Regardless of what day it is, we have to go out. When most parts of the city were shut around Diwali because of pollution, I roamed the city. If I don’t go out, I will die of hunger rather than from pollution,” she told me.

This section of Delhi, which remains outdoors for existence, understands the harms of rising pollution but has developed ignorance towards it. In the absence of any option but to inhale toxins, females like Noori Bibi subdue the risk they face themselves. Healthcare is sometimes not accessible, other times not affordable.

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To fill this gap in Delhi’s healthcare, 533 Aam Aadmi Mohalla Clinics were set up for free-of-cost healthcare and diagnostic tests by the AAP Government. These Mohalla Clinics were designed to serve a smaller location with better accessibility. In 2015, Kejriwal promised to build 1,000 such clinics by 2020. This year in August, he inaugurated 5 new clinics to reach the total count of only 650.

The population of the city is more than 3.2 crores, and 15% of them cannot even afford their family’s daily meal. The current number of clinics is substantially lower than required to actually provide affordable healthcare to those below the poverty line alone. As per current numbers, one little ‘Mohalla’ clinic is meant to cater to 35 thousand BPL (Below Poverty Line) persons. The nearest clinic to Noori Bibi’s place of residence is approximately 10 kilometers away, at Lajpat Nagar, of which she knows nothing.

To avoid an influx of patients and overburden, doctors at the clinic avoid visits. Health Minister Saurabh Bharadwaj in September 2023 suspended 7 Mohalla Clinic doctors and 27 staff members for altering attendance records. The Probe this year investigated Mohalla clinics across Delhi to find many locked during normal working hours.

Since its launch in 2015, Mohalla Clinics has been a flagship health program of the AAP government. But the city stands in need of more clinics and doctors. Mohalla Clinics also require special doctors to look for respiratory diseases because of pollution.

Effects of pollution include burning sensation in the eye, dry coughing, thinning hair, acne, breathlessness, heavy chest, and reduction in immunity and anxiety. Its impact on the body is more on those who remain outside for work. Workers at construction sites, dumping yards, chai stalls, and the homeless are thus affected by the rising pollution more. Their ignorance towards the harms of pollution is because they have no other choice.

Mohalla Clinics can be that choice for many if the program manages to become something more than an election gimmick.

Pollution Used as Click Bait

Pregnant women, the elderly, and children are most adversely affected by pollution. Research from abroad and within India indicates the possibility of harm to prenatal health of the baby when exposed to toxins like Sulphur Monoxide and suspended PM 2.5. After the start of November, national media began to report widely on the depreciation in sperm count and fertility due to pollution.

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Dr. Deepti Goyal, a natural birth expert and gynecologist practicing in NCR’s primary government health facility states, “This is clickbait journalism. Any information on reduction in sperm count or sexual health is actively read by people, especially young adults. The reproductive system is the most sophisticated and efficient system of the body. And thus, it's more sensitive to infections and damage. It is true that pollution impacts prenatal health of the fetus, but pollution does not work selectively. Toxins are inhaled with air and get mixed with the blood. This blood reaches every part of the body.”

Dr. Goyal understands pollution to be the creation of negative minds. According to her, apart from its impact on physical health, sound and air pollution in the city also deeply impact the psychological health of its residents. 

Government on Delhi’s Air Quality Crisis

Delhi’s air quality crisis is increasingly impacting a larger group of residents. Infamously known for its smog during winters only, Delhi’s air actually remains toxic year-round. In March this year, Delhi’s AQI was 164 (unhealthy). The primary pollutants in Delhi are PM2.5 and O3.

Almost all the steps taken by the Delhi government this season, based on a 13-point Winter Action Plan 2023, were taken by the government in 2022, 2021, and 2020. Yet, pollution is a recurring problem in Delhi.

There are three main reasons for this. One, 70% of air pollution in Delhi comes from outside (stubble-burning, vehicles, etc.). The problem requires interventions from various state governments (Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan). After AAP came to power in Punjab and failed to control stubble burning, the party can no longer blame only the states.

Second, air pollution in Delhi is managed by a mix of central, state, and autonomous bodies like NDMC, IIMT, Delhi Pollution Control Board and the likes. The lack of synergy in the functioning of the state’s AAP government and the Centre’s BJP is reflected in their mismanagement in clearing Delhi’s air. Delhi's AAP disallowed app-based cabs from other states, which raised security alarms for some women. Meanwhile, in the heart of Delhi, Connaught Place, the BJP distributed pollution masks to ‘save’ passersby from a fine of Rs. 2,000. Not to be left behind, the Congress conducted an all-party meeting on Delhi’s pollution on November 16. Pollution is an opportunity for many parties to develop a voter base in Delhi.

And thirdly, the city’s vehicular pollution, which is the second largest contributor, remains untargeted with a concrete action plan.

Foggy Way Forward 

An all-season, source-specific targeting is required to clear Delhi’s air. Alongside, awareness campaigning, reduction in civil construction, speeding up the improvement of Delhi’s green cover, and landfill clearance can be taken up seriously. Foremost of all is to ensure housing for each inhabitant of the city, especially during smoggy Delhi winters.

At the individual level, car-pooling, public transport, and remaining indoors can save the day. The days of the future remain smoggy and incomprehensible. “The rains will clean the air for another two days. But after that, we will get back to inhaling bad air,” says Geena Angelus Samar, residing in Noida, NCR. She is 23 years old and has suffered from asthma since a young age.

“I sit with the air purifier almost all day. I exist with it,” she laughs hysterically. “For some years now, winters have been very difficult for me. I spend around 8000 rupees on medicines, doctors, electricity, masks, cabs, etc. This time when I went to the doctor in Mayur Vihar, he straight up told me that I need to be seriously cautious with Delhi’s air quality crisis. My eyes become red, I cannot open my car windows, and get sick if I do physical activity. I have restricted loitering outdoors in the city,” Geena says.

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