Toxic air can’t keep New Delhi’s runners and yoga fans inside | ET REALITY


A few steps into his morning run, Purushottam Sahu was struggling to breathe. He started coughing. He felt like he was going to vomit.

Overhead, a thick gray-brown haze blanketed New Delhi’s sprawling forest park, where he and other runners, yoga enthusiasts and dog owners maintained their daily habits despite official warnings not to exert themselves in the toxic air. .

“We are all running faster towards death,” said Sahu, 46. “Because we have no other choice.”

Every year in late fall, when air pollution in the Indian capital reaches harmful extremes, the government takes emergency measures such as closing schools, restricting traffic and banning construction. But for the region’s 30 million people, life must go on, and for many in this urban sprawl of lush parks and morning walks, that means trying to stay active.

For them, the calculation is that staying home and skipping exercise (disrupting routines and forgoing the socialization that comes with it) is worse than going out and breathing poison.

The skies over Delhi began their annual descent into darkness more than a week ago, after farmers in neighboring agrarian states began burning rice stubble. The problem of air pollution, which is also linked to factors such as falling temperatures, vehicle exhaust and coal-fired power plants, has persisted as politicians have approached the issue primarily as something to to fight.

The concentrations of carcinogenic microparticles that enter the bloodstream through the lungs have skyrocketed in recent days to 30 times the danger limit established by the World Health Organization. Indian athletes for the Cricket World Cup have skipped practice sessions due to heavy smog. In the past, cricketers would vomit during matches.

Walk the streets of New Delhi and you can taste the air: a metallic, smoky taste, as if you’ve licked ashes.

Public health experts say strenuous exercise can mean deeper breathing and inhaling more particles into the lungs, making outdoor activity dangerous and sometimes even fatal, especially for older people. and children. Among the most vulnerable is Mr Sahu’s 9-year-old son, who follows him on his bicycle every morning.

Doctors say the number of patients with breathing problems, coughs or watery, irritated eyes has tripled. To avoid further saturation of the city’s already overloaded hospitals, authorities have warned residents to avoid morning and afternoon outdoor walks, running or any other outdoor physical exercise.

“It is harmful and dangerous, especially for the elderly people who crowd these parks,” said Dr. Ullas Batra, an oncologist at the Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute and Research Center in Delhi.

But almost no one listens, city parks officials said.

Across the capital region, there are approximately 18,000 parks and gardens that attract hundreds of thousands of people every morning. In interviews, about a dozen of them said they would prefer to exercise in the morning, even though a widely used air quality index, known as AQI, hovered around a “dangerous” 500, which is the highest measure on the scale.

“We will still compete when the AQI is 1,000, and politicians will blame each other for doing nothing,” said Jaipal Tanwar, an organic farmer, who was walking with his wife, Anita, in the forest park known as Sanjay. Van. “Now we are struggling to breathe and at that point we will suffocate.”

For years, the city’s fitness enthusiasts have resisted any move by authorities to derail their morning routine. During the coronavirus pandemic, authorities deployed police officers as people continued to enter parks during a strict lockdown.

On a recent morning, India Gate, a war memorial built by the British, was invisible among the plumes of smog. Spread across its flat grounds were colorful yoga mats. Older jocks engaged in intense conversations about domestic politics as they made rounds, and dog owners wandered aimlessly with headphones on.

At Lodhi Garden, a botanical expanse in the heart of New Delhi that attracts diplomats, government officials and wealthy city residents, two groups led by trainers practiced yoga between bouts of coughing. Of 50 people seen practicing yoga or jogging, only one was wearing a surgical mask. Many said they didn’t care about air pollution.

“Over the years, we have developed immunity against this dirty air,” said Mahesh Arora, a retired government official, who has been going to Lodhi Garden for 40 years for morning exercise. “We have to activate our body every day.”

Conversations during and after morning exercise sessions are often the only way to socialize for older residents of Delhi. Arora, who lives with his wife in an exclusive neighborhood, has two daughters in the United States and they visit them only once a year.

So far, the government’s emergency efforts have failed to resolve the worsening air pollution problem.

On Tuesday, India’s top court said the stifling air amounted to “murder of youth,” adding that the region’s government’s efforts could best be described as “mere optics.”

“It’s like starting to dig a well when people around are dying of thirst,” said Meenu Vasishth, a yoga trainer at Lodhi Garden. But she also expressed a common skepticism about the toll.

“I don’t think bad air kills people either,” he said. “If that were the case, there would be dead bodies everywhere in the city.”

While the effects may not be as visible, they are actually still widespread. In 2019, India had 1.6 million premature deaths related to pollution, the most of any country, according to a report in The Lancet, a British medical journal. Doctors say that in the last decade the number of lung cancer cases among non-smokers has skyrocketed.

Sahu, who was on a morning run at Sanjay Van, said he had moved to the city for a job 15 years ago and was now working as a software engineer. His daughter has cerebral palsy and only goes out once a week when the air is bad. They live in a neighborhood where rents are low and there are no trees.

That day, his son, Dipesh, soon became fatigued as he cycled behind him. Within half an hour, they were both done.

“If I have the choice, I will pack my bags and leave this city without telling my friends,” Sahu said. “We are stuck in giving a good education to our children, without realizing that we are also killing them with poisonous air.”

But he doesn’t use air purifiers at home, he said, because they limit mobility. “It’s like being in an intensive care unit,” she said. “You can’t live there.”

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