Skies over this city of more than 18 million have been blanketed in a dark yellow haze for several days, as air pollution hits record high levels that has forced schools to close and flights to be diverted. Residents complain of burning eyes, persistent headaches and coughing.

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Delhi may be India’s worst affected city, but it is not alone. All of northern India is breathing toxic air, just as it does every winter when pollutants get trapped in the atmosphere as the windy monsoon season ends.

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Of the world’s 30 most polluted cities, 22 are in India. Yet the protest at India Gate is the first this winter and fewer than 500 demonstrators are present.

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“Air pollution hasn’t become a political issue in India,” says Bharati Chaturvedi, founder of Chintan, an environmental advocacy group.

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“(It’s) because we don’t have a large number of angry people across the socio-economic spectrum protesting frequently on the roads and putting clear [demands] to elected representatives,” adds Chaturvedi.

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“It is still seen as an issue that impacts all, but upsets only the elite on social media.”

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Karma catches up

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Air quality in New Delhi is bad for almost the entire year, except for a few weeks when monsoon rains wash pollutants away.

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In what has become an annual ritual, residents worry about air pollution only for a few winter weeks when the haze gets so thick you can not see the buildings on the next block. Come February, blue skies return and the issue is forgotten.

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“People don’t know how bad it is,” says Gobind Kapur, 31, a furniture designer. “In my own family, people think they don’t need to wear a mask or use an air purifier. They don’t think it’s causing them damage.”

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Globally, up to 4.2 million people die every year as a result of exposure to ambient (outdoor) air pollution according to the World Health Organization (WHO). And smog has been linked to higher rates of stroke, heart attack, diabetes, lung cancer and chronic lung disease.

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But according to one protester at India Gate, Delhiites do not acknowledge the link between polluted air and long-term damage to their health.

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“Karma always catches up,” reads a poster held by Navkirat Sodhi, a poet.

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“Karma will catch up with the people who didn’t think it was important to turn up at this protest, and with the politicians who don’t care to do anything,” she says.

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“It’s when people start collapsing that they will care.”

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Mainstream silence

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New Delhi is jointly governed by India’s central government and the local Government of Delhi.

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A leading source of the city’s air pollution is the crop residue burned by farmers in the neighboring states of Punjab and Haryana between harvesting rice and sowing wheat.

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Yet multiple authorities in different states have failed to work together to reduce air pollution, despite recent criticism from India’s top court.

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As authorities pass the buck, people don’t know who to blame.

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It is telling that India’s all-powerful Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is fond of frequently addressing the nation, has so far remained relatively quiet on the issue of air pollution in the capital.

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Different political parties rule different states and this contributes to the lack of a joined up approach to tackling the problem.

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Local elections in Delhi are due in February 2020, but it is unlikely that air pollution will be a major campaign issue since the three major parties contesting the vote are not treating the issue with urgency.

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Regardless, India’s weak political opposition and a largely pro-establishment media appear somewhat unable and unwilling to hold Modi’s government to account.

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Environmentalist Jai Dhar Gupta runs a campaign called My Right to Breathe, and has debated the issue of air pollution with politicians on television talk shows.

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He says their arguments left him disappointed.

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“I tell them to stop waffling and say at least one intelligent thing,” he says, posing for cameras at the India Gate in a T-shirt emblazoned with the question, “Having a bad air day?”

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“Even the Central Pollution Control Board has no idea of what it is talking about,” says Gupta.

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“To give credit to Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, he has at least put forth some ideas, no matter how weak they are. At least he’s seeing it as an issue,” says Gupta, referencing Kejriwal’s idea of rationing private cars in Delhi on the basis of odd and even number plates.

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“The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of Narendra Modi doesn’t even think it’s an issue. They can just win elections in the name of Narendra Modi and his popularity, so they don’t have to care about issues,” adds Gupta.

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Clean Air Act

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Kejriwal is not the only one attempting to break through the impasse. One lawmaker wants to put forth a new suggestion to tackle the air pollution crisis, when India’s national parliament reopens on November 18.

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Gaurav Gogoi, a lawmaker from the opposition Indian National Congress party, intends to table a new Air Act to replace one that was enacted in 1981. It is based along the lines of the United States Clean Air Act (1963). It is unlikely that Gogoi’s bill will be passed, but it may at least spark a debate.

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“Political leaders need to stop treating air pollution as merely an environmental issue and understand that it’s a public health emergency,” he told CNN.

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