To be a reporter in wintertime Delhi

Nov 7, 2016

I recently moved out of Delhi. The air made it easier to decide to leave. What I’ve learnt is that a source of amusement to many friends in the country’s south is actually a nightmare up north, where a five-minute stroll outside can leave you with an irritated throat, watering eyes and the feeling that something is burning its way through your nose. In the week right after Deepavali, you woke up in the morning smelling something toasty; the view through your window was always more brown than it ought to be. You couldn’t go to and return from work without feeling short of breath – irrespective of how you travelled.
The effects of the disaster are undoubtedly classist, sometimes more than they need to be. Recently, Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal announced that air purifiers would be installed at a few major traffic intersections around Delhi to clean the air. Sarath Guttikunda, a scientist and environmental activist, wrote for The Wire about the vacuity of Kejriwal’s desperation, that he would resort to a downstream solution that would affect so few people in the city instead effecting something upstream – at the sources – that would help everyone. What about those who can’t afford air filters? What about those who live on the roads?
The scale of changes that will have to be implemented implies Delhi’s wintertime pollution problem will maintain its classist manifestation for a few years at least – assuming the changes are implemented at all. To quote Guttikunda, they are, broadly, to increase the quality of public transportation and reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills. The issue here is that – assuming you’re a middle-class person with a job that pays 25k to 75k a month – unless your employers are reasonable and/or considerate, you’re not going to get time off work unless the pollution renders you bed-ridden for the day.

Delhi has four popular public transportation options: auto, bus, metro and cab (Ola/Uber). There are also rickshaws but they operate over shorter distances. Only the metro is immune to traffic jams, although they’re often packed to the rafters with passengers. The other modes contribute to and are stuck in jams regularly, especially when going from south Delhi, east Delhi and Gurgaon to central Delhi in the morning and the other way in the evening. If you want to get to work on time, the metro is your best option.
Even then, however, given the number of stations together with the size of the city, the odds of finding a metro station close to home as well as to the workplace are quite low. You’re going to have to walk, or take an auto/rickshaw, through the crappy air over the course of a few arduous minutes.
What’re these minutes of exposure going to do, you ask? Deepak Natarajan, a cardiologist in Delhi, has a list of diseases likelier to beset you after short-term exposure to heightened PM2.5 levels:

  1. Acute myocardial infarction
  2. Unstable angina
  3. Increased likelihood of heart attacks by 8-26%
  4. Heightened risk of thrombosis
  5. Endothelial dysfunction,

and a host of other cardiovascular ailments. As Natarajan writes, air pollution kills more people every year than AIDS and malaria. The next time you’re walking through the smog, imagine what it would be like to walk through a cloud of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

There are no laws securing anyone’s choice to not work – or at least to not have to visit the workplace – with that bilious overhang. Consider the plight of journalists. Reporters among them have an especial obligation to spend time outside, and the more seasoned among them seldom think about the pollution as a vocational hazard. It’s a job that requires a modicum of physiological fitness that’s also almost never discussed. In fact, the conversation is swept away by the pretext of a ‘reporter allowance’.
Just the way poverty makes all the small, niggling issues in life seem more maddening, a rapidly shrinking set of class-sensitive solutions available to those labouring in wintertime Delhi can drive people similarly close to the edge, such as auto-drivers refusing rides to certain areas, a perpetual shortage of buses and surge pricing. We all know these are not immediately fixable, so pull a Kejriwal and head downstream to check in on your local news-bearers.
Journalists’ employers’ attitude matters because Delhi’s pollution becomes easier to live through the more privileged you are. CEOs are paid more than senior reporters, so the way they experience pollution season is very different, especially considering the urban architecture. Many media houses, almost all government offices and the city’s richer people are all situated in central Delhi, which is marked by open spaces, abundant greenery, its radial outlay and wide roads – all contributing to the reduced prevalence of dust. The cost of living drops as you move further away from this area (with a marked drop once you exit the radial areas). This means the hierarchy in a journalist’s workplace is likely to be mirrored by each employee’s residence’s proximity to central Delhi – which is also a proximity by proxy to healthiness.
Privilege, as has often been the case, often blinds those who enjoy it to the travails of those who don’t. In this case, for example, it is established by having access to the following (at a reasonable cost):

  1. A house in a clean neighbourhood, away from dusty roads
  2. Abundant greenery in your immediate neighbourhood
  3. An air-conditioner
  4. Air filters/purifiers/fresheners
  5. A car
  6. A proximate workplace
  7. Clean, well-maintained public spaces
  8. Sufficient time and/or resources to keep the house clean
  9. Affordable medicines and access to medical assistance

Without access to them, daily life can be quite disorderly, unfulfilling and hard to establish a routine with, especially if like me you can’t live this way without a toll on your productivity and peace of mind. So Delhi’s pollution imposes high entry barriers for healthy living on its residents and which become less surmountable the farther away from the city’s centre you are. If you’re a reporter, you’re likelier to have it well and truly harder than most others of your means, thanks to central Delhi being cleaner, areas farther more removed from it cheaper, air pollution being easier to live through the more privileged you are, and there being no laws to secure your right to a clean working environment.
To address these issues, reporters in wintertime Delhi should receive an additional allowance as well as shorter and more flexible working hours. Other staffers should also be allowed to work from where they feel comfortable apart from receiving an allowance that will help cover medical expenses, to begin with. Those who can’t or won’t should be kept mindful of what they are asking their journalists to give up and compensate them accordingly as and when opportunities arise. Even so, no amount of fondness or pride for situating themselves in the national capital can save journalism establishments from the steady toll the city is taking on their journalists.
Featured image credit: souravdas/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

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