Stinging eyes, an unrelenting cough and chronic lung disease have taken their toll on Bhajan Lal, an auto rickshaw driver navigating the Indian capital’s chaotic roads and poisonous air.
For the last three decades, Lal carted passengers along bumpy thoroughfares to temples, markets and offices in New Delhi, working every day through the winter months when a pall of toxic smog settles over the sprawling megacity.
“The pollution causes a lot of problems for my throat,” the 58-year-old told AFP, after a morning spent in the driver’s seat of his motorised three-wheeler.
“My eyes sting… My lungs are affected, which creates breathing problems. Mucus builds up and collects in my chest.”
Delhi is consistently ranked the world’s worst capital for air quality and on its most polluted days the smog can cut visibility on the roads to barely 50 metres.
Levels of PM2.5 pollutants — the microparticles most harmful to human health, which can enter the bloodstream through the lungs — last week reached more than 30 times the maximum daily limit recommended by the World Health Organization.
“I feel so sorry looking at children and their health,” said Lal. “They are already getting sick.”
Lal’s business suffers and he sometimes drives around the streets for an entire day without finding passengers, who prefer paying extra to sit through their commutes inside a cab.
For those without the luxury of escaping the choking air, the health impacts are severe.