“Somvaar ko school gaye, gate band tha, koi madam nahi aayi thi, guard ne bola pollution hai, chutti hai (On Monday, when we went to school, the gates were shut, there were no teachers, the guard told us school is closed because of pollution),” says Rani, 8, dressed in a worn-out sky-blue T-shirt and yellow pyjamas. Her mother, Meera, however, isn’t too pleased. Struggling to run a comb through her daughter’s oily, scruffy hair, she complains, “School band hai toh bas sirf ghoomte rahenge mohalle mein… Jao dadi ke ghar par baith ke padho (Now that the school is shut, they will keep roaming around in the colony… Go to your grandmother’s home and study).” She instructs her son, Sunny, to ensure that his sister completes her assignments. The 11-year-old nods dutifully, flashing a smirk at his sister before the two rush out of their home.
The choking haze that enveloped the Capital last week prompted Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to take a raft of emergency measures, among them, shutting of schools for three days.
So Rani and Sunny, who attend the Nagar Nigam Balbalika Vidyalaya and Sarvodaya Vidyalaya respectively, in East Delhi’s Anand Vihar, have got an unexpected break from classes, making it difficult for Meera to keep them occupied through the day. “Mai teen din se subah kaam par nahi gayi (I haven’t gone to work for three days),” complains Meera, 32, who works as a domestic help.
Anand Vihar has consistently recorded some of the highest pollution levels among the Capital’s localities. On Diwali night, according to data from the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, PM 2.5 levels (particles less than or 2.5 micrometres in diameter) in the locality rose to a whopping 883 micrograms per cubic metre — 14 times the permissible 60 micrograms per cubic metre. At 1,680 micrograms per cubic metre, the locality also had the highest concentration of PM10 (particles with a diameter of 10 micrometres or less) on the day after Diwali — over 16 times above the safe limit of 100 micrograms per cubic metre. The PM10 levels improved to 999 micrograms per cubic metre last week but were still dangerously high.
However, for the 2,500-odd residents of Anand Vihar’s JJ Colony, where Rani and Sunny live, “pollution” or its “dangerous level” means little.
Sitting on her haunches on a slab above an open drain, Rani, a Class III student, struggles to explain ‘pollution’, a sheepish smile flitting across her face. Sunny, a Class VI student, jumps in to help: “Dhua, patakha, aag, sab pollution karte hain (smoke, firecrackers, fire, all these cause pollution),” he quips. Their friends, who have now gathered around the two in a semi-circle, nod in approval.
It’s 9.30 am and, as directed by their mother, Rani and Sunny are making their way to their grandmother’s home, a few metres away. Textbooks and pencil boxes firmly clutched under their arms, the two children are joined by their cousins, Aarti, 6, and Aman, 9, as they rush past the cramped lanes, before climbing a steep flight of stairs and settling down with their books in a dingy enclosure. The thatched gate of the small room is left open for the light to come in.
Sunny asks Rani and Aarti to concentrate on ‘numbers’. The two comply by opening their math notebooks; Aman focuses on his tables. Sunny himself is “taking it easy” today. “Maine kal sab maths, English padh liya tha. Aaj bas drawing (I studied maths and English yesterday. Today, it will be only drawing,” he says.
Unlike school days, when the two wake up at 6 am to get to school by 8.30 am, Rani and Sunny only got out of bed at 7 am today. “Bas brush kiya, kal school jaane se pehle nahayenge (We only brushed. We will take a bath tomorrow morning, before going to school,” smiles Rani. “Phir nashta kiya, matthi aur chai (We then had tea and matthi for breakfast),” adds Sunny.
An hour later, the group decides “padhai khatam, khelne chaltein hain (We are done studying; let’s go and play)”. The fact that their grandmother isn’t home helps. After a heated discussion, they all agree to a game of char ka dabba (hopscotch). Rani goes around, calling out to her friends and Sunny gets his “gang”. While making their way to the main road, the children make a brief stopover to play with the neighbourhood stray.
“Yeh Julie hai! Julie, udhar dekho (This is Julie. Julie, look that way…),” exclaims Rani, petting the dog. The other children too form a circle around the dog, which seems happy with the attention. But there is little time to waste. “Chalo jaldi warna mummy bula lengi (Come fast or else mummy will call us home),” Sunny yells out to the group and they all leave, allowing Julie to return to her mid-morning nap.
In one corner of the main road, the girls prepare for the game by drawing boxes using a red brick. Sunny, who has been having an argument with his cousin over who gets to hop first, looks over towards a group of boys who are burning plastic bags. “Yeh dekho pollution (Look, that is pollution),” he says, running across to the boys. Startled, the group lets go of the plastic bags and disperses. “See the smoke… badboo bhi kitni gandi hai (the smell is disgusting),” says Sunny. “I have been coughing for days. These boys don’t understand…,” Rani joins him, letting out a forced cough, to drive her point home.
What about masks, has anyone told them about it? “Woh jiske dhaage kaan pe peeche lagatein hain (The one whose strings are tucked behind the ear)?” asks Sunny. “Mummy had got them last year from her madam (whom she works for), not this time. Do you have some?” he asks.
The children spend the next hour playing chaar ka dabba. “Yeh poore time cheating karti hai (She cheats all the time),” shouts Rani at her cousin Aarti following an argument. Offended, she leaves the group. Soon, the rest call for a “time-out” too.
Sunny, Rani and the rest of the children make their way to the nearby kirana store, where they stand in a neat queue for some ‘Fun Flips’ chips. “Ek ek kar ke batao kya chahiye (Tell me one at a time what you want),” instructs the shopkeeper. Rani tugs at her brother’s shirt and asks him to get her “buggle gum”. “It’s bubble gum,” Sunny corrects her, before turning to the shopkeeper. He gets a packet of chips for himself. Cousins Aman and Aarti opt for another brand. “Papa se paise le lena (take the money from papa),” says Sunny, chomping on the chips.
Before lunch, the children catch up on their favourite cartoons. “Motu-Patlu, Doremon, sab barah baje 400 channel par aata hai (All our favourite cartoons come on Channel No. 400, at noon). On school days, we miss them,” says Rani. Theirs is one of the few houses here with a television set; so Sunny leads the group to his home.
Inside, their father Raju, 34, a driver, is eating his lunch — roti and a vegetable made of radish. Settling down before the TV set in the room, Rani complains about the meal. “School mein rajma chawal milta hai. Namak kam hota hai, par achcha lagta hai (We get rajma and rice at school. There is not enough salt, but we like it),” she says, soon getting engrossed in the cartoons with her friends.
“Only one show,” shouts out Meera, who is keen that the lunch gets over soon so that she can go to work in the evening.
Serving her husband another roti, she also exclaims when told Anand Vihar is the most polluted. “No wonder our eyes have been watering for the past few days,” she says. Adds Raju, “The children have been coughing too. But we have seen no efforts by the government here.”
He and his wife together earn Rs 13,000 per month and the family has been living in Anand Vihar for over 40 years. “I was born here,” says Raju.
By 12.30 pm, all the children return to their homes. Sunny and Rani start their lunch. As the conversation drifts towards school again, Rani says, “Mujhe Anita ma’am sabse achchi lagti hain (Anita ma’am is my favourite teacher). She teaches English and Hindi.” Complains Meera: “Pollution is fine, but why shut schools? Look at these two… wasting their time all day. I am glad the schools are opening tomorrow….”
She then turns to her children and says, “Now eat and go to sleep, you have tuition classes in the evening. And pack your school bags, your books are scattered.”
Rani and Sunny aren’t listening.