Ram Karan Malhotra

I have you lived in Delhi for over forty years. I was born in Jaipur, in Rajasthan. I start my work at 5am because I like the air at that time; it’s cooler and not so dusty. By the afternoon or evening, it suffocates me. You can’t breathe because the air is so thick with dust.

I have an allergy that makes a lot of my work very difficult. I get an allergic reaction to any kind of work that involves mixing concrete or shovelling dirt, so it becomes hard for me to breathe and I start coughing a lot.

I’ve never thought about [why the air is dirty]. All I can say is that I feel how much better the air is in the morning. By the end of the day the dirty air covers the city like a blanket. But I’ve never thought about why it becomes like that.

The buses produce a lot of black smoke. When you’re in the vehicle behind one of those buses or a truck then you literally hold your breath and put your shirt over your mouth. The black air is very harmful. I feel that there’s been no change in the air quality over the last forty years, but what I do feel is that the air is only breathable in the morning. That’s the only time of the day I enjoy walking around Delhi. After that, everything becomes mixed up and the air starts to suffocate me.

When I go to my village in Rajasthan I feel younger, when I come back I feel unwell and my allergy returns. This whole team [around 17 other manual labourers] all have similar issues to me. So that’s why I’m not surprised that many people are dying from this bad air. One of my friends isn’t here because he’s gone back to his village. His breathing problem was very bad, he would feel suffocated and you could see the strain on his face when he started coughing.

There’s no strength [“takad”: Hindi word meaning power or strength] in this air. The air in my village has more takad. The air in Delhi doesn’t have any. The air here smells bad but in my village it is fresh and makes you feel good. There is open sewage all around the city and sometimes, when I walk past that or burning plastic or mixing concrete at work, I feel so weak.

[Then] I cough furiously. It happens at work very often as I am working in a dusty environment, and sometimes work next to large traffic jams, all day. I even have the problem at home; sometimes I cough a lot when my wife is cooking some spicy food! I feel completely suffocated and claustrophobic.

At work, I don’t have the time or the energy to think about something like that [how it might be better]! I’m not educated enough to even start thinking about a problem like that. I’m poor and my main concern is to earn money to survive and feed myself and family. I can’t make a change in such a big place. I realise it’s problematic for me but, each year, I work to survive and to take a break when I return to my village and take a break and regain my strength. That’s all I can do.