Choking in the line of duty
Delhi’s air burns and stings but these traffic policemen continue to hold fort
To be a traffic policeman, head constable Rajveer Singh Yadav has to get comfortable with the constant taste of grit in his mouth and the feel of soot in his nose. When I walk up to his roadside perch in central Delhi on a May afternoon, he is taking a rest from the fierce heat. Yadav, who’s big and bulky, looks mismatched. He’s clad in regulation traffic police uniform—a starched white shirt tucked into blue pants, the whole ensemble held together by a big belt. But his feet are shod in a pair of sandals. Only one of his eyes looks normal. The other is bloodshot.
Yadav seems gently resigned to his fate. There is even a suggestion that he finds it all a bit funny, especially the sight of a reporter walking up unannounced to ask him questions about pollution and its effects. His demeanour suggests that I am like the river of traffic he is sitting next to: no matter what I say, I’ll be gone, and his life will go on unchanged.
He is not wrong. The Capital’s air pollution problem has been catalogued extensively. Hundreds of reports have been written. Hundreds of thousands of tweets issued. And dozens of speeches delivered. Yet little seems to have changed. Even the face masks, available for free to every traffic policeman, are useless after a few days.
“Wearing a mask makes no difference, because they’re usually not of good quality,” Yadav says. Later on, I will find that the masks the state police provides are in fact of good build, and are meant to be washed regularly. But even the most expensive of these can only survive so many washes. The government doesn’t issue replacements.
Yadav’s station is at Barakhamba circle. A hundred metres from his post is the Income Tax Office intersection, or ITO Circle as it is universally called. It is one of the biggest choke points in the city. “Soon it will be rush hour”, he says, “when 3,000 vehicles will pour through the traffic lights in 10 minutes. What do you think will happen to a person who spends all this time in this air?”
To find out the answer to that and other questions, I meet Sunny Kalra, an expert in respiratory diseases at BLK Super Specialty Hospital in the Capital.
In September 2017, he examined almost 200 traffic policemen and women at a health camp organized in Delhi by the traffic police, and found that almost 120 suffered from persistent coughs and colds. Just under a half of these men and women had shortness of breath. But the most common factor to almost everyone was stress, with a majority exhibiting high blood pressure. He found that many of them smoked cigarettes to deal with the stress.
“We’re all smokers in this city anyway,” Dr Kalra says, referring to the toxic air in the city.
Research has shown that long-term exposure to pollutants and irritants often leads to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Out of the 200 traffic policemen and women he examined, Dr Kalra found about 20 or 30 cases of COPD. “This is a higher incidence of the disease than you will find in the regular population,” he says. He adds that about a third of those who suffer from COPD go on to develop cancer or heart disease.
The biggest problem is that the effects of pollution are slow to show. Over time, they have a cumulative effect. “Let’s say a traffic police constable begins work from the first of January,” Dr Kalra says, “by the time December rolls around, he will be in a very bad shape.”
It’s not just the traffic police. Dr Kalra believes that everyone—rich or poor—should worry about the air. He has a wife and four-year-old child, and as I leave, he says, “I’m going to get them to leave this city for good.”
After the medical camp last September, Dr Kalra recommended that the police limit duty-times to short bursts, up to 6 hours at a time, instead of the usual 8-12.
What happened to that recommendation? To find out, I meet Garima Bhatnagar, joint commissioner of police (traffic). Her office, on the ninth floor of the Delhi Police Headquarters, is just a few buildings away from the ITO intersection.
Like the workspaces of all those who serve in the prestigious civil service, Bhatnagar’s office is guarded by her personal assistant and several other officers. On the day I am to meet her, I am ushered in along with another supplicant, whom she addresses first. This gives me some time to observe her office. My eyes are almost immediately drawn to an air purifier which is purring near softly in a corner.
It is by no means clear, she says, that the toxic air affects the traffic police any more than it affects anyone else in the city. To support her point, she ticks off a few facts: the tenure of a traffic policeman is two or three years. After that, they’re rotated to a police station or a battalion. Two, she says, stress is abnormally high for traffic policemen. But is that because they’re stationed near the traffic, or because they eat junk food? Three, because constables spend 11-12 hours on the street every day, they have other health problems. Backaches and leg aches are common. Headaches occur frequently because of the constant bleat of vehicle horns and the heat. Four, there aren’t any scientific studies about the effects of air pollution on the traffic police, and therefore no room for any definitive conclusions, she adds.
Referring to the medical camp held in September, she says for most of those examined, lung function was “normal”. “What we do know for sure”, she says, “is that in the summer, vehicular smoke only accounts for 5-7% of the overall pollution. In the winter, it is about 12-15%.” Her implication is clear: It is by no means clear that traffic smoke in one of the world’s most polluted cities is hazardous to the health of the traffic policemen.
Two days earlier, on the same sweltering afternoon when I’d spoken to head constable Yadav, I’d also met constable Parmod Kumar at the ITO traffic police kiosk.
I reached him as he was changing into his street clothes at the back of the kiosk. It was 3pm and his shift was over. One by one, the other members of his shift too changed out of their uniforms and left on their motorcycles and scooters.
Kumar stayed on to talk to me for a while.
“If I continue in the traffic police, then I won’t be able to live out a full life,” he said at one point. Yet, it seems like it isn’t all bad. If you fall sick on the job, he said, you have a decent chance of being shifted to light duty for a year or two. The police brass at the headquarters were doing their bit, he felt. “When it gets really hot, they send us glucose powder.”
Kumar believes that his kiosk, one of the biggest choke points in the city, isn’t even as bad as other spots away from central Delhi. “Here you just have to deal with vehicular smoke,” he said, adding, “unlike the outer areas, where you have to deal with dhool (dust) and mitti (sand) too.” I realized he is right. In central Delhi at least, trucks aren’t allowed. Even the posh parts of southern Delhi have to deal with non-stop truck traffic from neighbouring states, which makes the pollution worse.
In the days, weeks and months after meeting Kumar and head constable Yadav, I think of them often and our connection to this vast metropolis.
Fifteen years ago, I wandered into Delhi and ended up staying. As the years rolled by, I got better and better at dealing with the city’s hostile climate. When my ceiling fan was no longer enough, I was making just enough to afford an air conditioner. When auto rides started giving me headaches, I had enough for a bank loan to buy a car.
A few years ago, when we, the salaried upper middle class all realized that the air was way more toxic than we first thought, we had enough to pay for air purifiers and car air purifiers.
As the world’s attention centred on Delhi’s air, we stayed on. Sometimes because we had no other choice, and sometimes because we had our rationales.
For Kumar, life isn’t all that bad despite the pollution. A little bit of glucose powder during the high heat of Delhi’s summer is proof enough that the higher-ups care. For me, Delhi is where you have to be if you are a journalist.
And for Yadav, the toxic air isn’t even his biggest health problem. I remember his bare feet, enclosed in sandals. That day when I met him, he rolled up his trousers to show me his ankles and feet covered in rashes. He couldn’t wear the regulation issue boots and the thick, long socks anymore. He told me he spends ₹5,000 on medicines for his legs. I asked, “₹5,000 a year”? No, he clarified. “₹5,000 a month.”
As I look back now, I realize that ₹5,000 a month could buy him many things in a year—school fees at an expensive private school, down payment on a car, a top-of-the-line air purifier.
This piece was reported as part of the 2018 Slow Journalism workshop carried out by the National Geographic Society and Out of Eden Walk.
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