The writer, who moved to Delhi earlier this year from France, tells us about her children’s first tryst with the city’s pollution levels and the effect it has on them.
By Aparajita Kumar
My family and I moved from France to India in April, 2018. After a scorching summer, I was actually looking forward to winter because I knew that temperatures wouldn’t fall below zero and my two children, aged four and two, could get out and play more. What I did not anticipate was the dangerous pollution levels that a Delhi winter brings with it.
I got acquainted with the thick smoke one October morning when I opened my front door, looking at what I thought was fog. Only when I stepped out did I realise it was a blanket of smoke, so thick that I couldn’t even see the park right across our apartment building.
On asking my friends, I was told that this is a yearly occurrence, thanks to crop burning, the urban poor burning garbage and of course, the Ravana burning at Dussehra and the cracker bursting at Diwali. The air quality goes from moderate to poor and then to very poor.
The high levels of pollution are terrifying all the mothers I spoke to. The smog is at its worst in the mornings when they send their children to school and there are days when they don’t even want them to set foot out of the door.
I am lucky that my kids are homeschooled so I don’t have to expose them to the early morning smog. We usually get out of the house around noon, a time when the air is breathable and they get exposed to some Vitamin D. But the mothers of schoolgoing children don’t have this luxury, so after a day or two off, they have to walk them out of the door, into the smoke filled atmosphere. Many schools have been curtailing time for outdoor games, because of the parents’ concerns about the smog.
The kids’ evening play time has been affected too. Where all the moms in my apartment complex would happily send their children out to play all summer, the park is deserted now. It’s almost impossible to keep our children cooped up all day, but it is better than standing in a smog filled playground and watching our little ones running around breathing that air and coughing.
Speaking of coughing, I’m horrified by the number of children who have been affected by a persistent cough, wheezing or other respiratory issues. I am terrified that my kids, who have never experienced this much pollution, will end up with the same amount of persistent breathing issues and illness.
My son actually told me on Diwali day, “Amma, my breathing is hurting!” My two-year-old added that her eyes hurt and asked if we could go home in a hoarse voice. I knew exactly what they were talking about. I had that burning, choking feeling at the back of my throat from inhaling too much smoke and my eyes were watering too!
My fellow moms and I worry constantly about the long-term health effects these high pollution levels will have on our kids and the generations to come. How will it affect their lungs? Will all that forced indoor time affect their physical health? Will they become Vitamin D deficient and grow up with weak, brittle bones? We can only raise these questions, but we feel helpless as we have no answers to them.
There are a few solutions I have been offered, masks for example. But kids don’t want to wear them! I know from personal experience how hard it is to convince a four-year-old and a two-year-old to put them on and then, keep wearing them while outdoors. Inside the house, air purifiers are a lifesaver, but no amount of purifying the indoor air can make up for the children’s lack of fresh air, physical activity and Vitamin D exposure.
Basically, these solutions are like band-aids on a huge, gaping wound. I feel like there need to be more preventative measures in place to stop these elevated pollution levels. The burning of crops and garbage needs to stop and better ways of waste management should be introduced. Further, the public transport in Delhi needs a lot of improvement. I’m happy to see that the number of metro stations is increasing. But the other modes of transport need to be more accessible for parents, too. Buses, for example, could be made more woman and child-friendly, so we are able to travel comfortably. I remember having enough space to park my stroller and special seats where my little ones and I could sit, in France. Facilities like those in Delhi would entice mothers like us to take buses too. Hopefully, this would reduce the number of cars on the road and consequently, amount of smoke emitted by them.
And as for firecrackers, I believe they need to be totally stopped. There is a window of a couple of hours when the bursting of crackers is permitted, but people don’t limit themselves to those hours. The crackers burst constantly during the Navratri and Diwali period contribute greatly to Delhi’s alarming pollution problem. There should be an absolute ban on firecrackers with harsh measures for those who don’t adhere to the rules.
It is only once these measures are in place that there will be a drop in the pollution levels. It is only then that I won’t regret moving to Delhi and exposing my children to the smog and its awful impact. It is only then that mothers like myself will stop being afraid to let their children set foot out of the door. Our children will be back where they belong, school in the mornings for those who go and the park in the evening, with them running free and breathing fresh clean air.
(Aparajita Kumar is a homeschooling mother of two young children, aged four and two years. She runs a parenting and homeschooling channel on YouTube called That Indian Mom. Views are personal.)