Harsh Dhillon, 42, who has gone running in central Delhi every morning for six years, reads the air quality by how his body reacts. "I spit black phlegm after every run now, I can physically feel how much worse it is getting." He is more worried about his seven-year-old son's asthma, which flares with the pollution in winter. "One lives in this city under sufferance," says Dhillon.
Meanwhile, Kolkata reels under congestion and a growing crush of vehicles. "Kolkata has become an old-age home for vehicles. An order to phase out public vehicles older than 15 years was passed long ago, but execution is another matter," says anti-pollution activist Subhash Dutta. Chennai too has industrial hotspots such as Kathivakkam, Manali and Thiruvottiyur with off-the-charts pollution levels.
Across India, construction dust, exhaust fumes from trucks and cars, coal plant and factory emissions, diesel generators, stubble burning in fields, garbage fires and inefficient chulhas, among others, have made air pollution nothing short of a public emergency. Last May, a World Health Organization (WHO) study of 1,600 cities revealed how air pollution had worsened significantly, even compared to a smaller study in 2011, and that Delhi officially has the world's dirtiest air, going by its PM2.5 count.
Pollution preys on the vulnerable. The most direct, lifelong impact is on children, and it can impair many aspects of their health, including cognition and memory. It disproportionately hurts the elderly, pregnant women, those with a history of respiratory trouble, and those who have no shield from working or living outdoors, such as traffic police, hawkers, construction workers and the homeless.