NEW DELHI — Located in a narrow passage of Khan Market, the cosmopolitan district of New Delhi, a small clothing shop is displaying the city's latest look: a black surgical mask on a mannequin's face. "Do you have masks for children?" a posh-looking woman enquires. The shopkeeper Sriram rushes to present her with two models. "They're cheaper than the ones for adults, 1,200 rupees ($18), but they can be used for six months and they're washable."

This small branch of the California brand Vogmask, opened just a month ago, has had no trouble attracting a wealthy clientele. Air pollution has reached record levels in the Indian capital this winter. In some areas, it's at least 10 times higher than the World Health Organization acceptable norms. So the rich are equipping themselves, with air purifier and sophisticated mask sales shooting up. "We're selling at least 20 a day," the shopkeeper explains, happy as an arms dealer in the middle of a war. "About 90% of our clientele are foreigners."

A few meters away, outside of this privileged enclave, rickshaw drivers are watching, incredulous, as a group of Chinese businessmen pass them by, their mouths covered with surgical masks. One of them laughs. He just wraps up in his long shawl, blackened by the fumes. "Foreigners are sensitive," he says. "We're used to it. We've been breathing this air forever. And besides, it's worse in China. You can't see two meters away!"

This propensity of denial is widespread in New Delhi — but it's also a question of priority for many. "In India, for the majority of the population it's about having something to eat, a roof, and not necessarily fresh air," says Piyush Srivastava, director of ElectroGreen India, a group that is about to launch a magazine on environmental issues. "At any rate, people don't have a choice. They must live with pollution."

In the meantime, slowly but surely, air pollution continues to take its toll. It's believed to be responsible for 30,000 early deaths every year in Delhi alone, a catastrophe until now ignored by political leaders. It wasn't until the unprecedented peak of this winter that Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi, himself asthmatic, decided to establish for the first time an alternating traffic system.

The move initially was widely criticized, but a majority of inhabitants have ended up supporting it. Thousands of people even joined the municipal police in trying to convince the sometimes very angry transgressors. Figures show that the decision brought down pollution levels by 20 to 25%. But this estimation isn't accepted by all, with some scientists arguing that the improvements are mostly due to stronger winds and the humidity level.

Scrambling for solutions

The measure's success in reducing traffic, albeit slightly, has convinced the government to rethink its entire transportation system. Initiatives to encourage car-sharing, cycling and walking are under consideration. In the short term, the city will deploy 3,000 extra buses this year that will run on electricity, natural gas or biodiesel, and one-third of them will be "premium" buses, with online booking, Wi-Fi and hostesses."Finally," says a businessman whose family owns four cars. "When you see what current buses look like, some of them are tombstones on wheels!"


New Delhi — Photo: Nomad

Will this be enough to cut down automobile traffic? Many are dubious. Every day, some 1,400 more cars join the estimated 8.5 million vehicles already circulating in Delhi. This evolution is due not only to rising living standards for part of the population, but also to failures on the part of authorities.

"The pollution is also the result of the state's failings," says economist Mohan Guruswamy. "We complain that we still see men peeing in the street. They actually face six months in prison for that. But does anybody mention the lack of toilets in India? There is, on average, one public toilet for every 5,000 people!"

Buses and subways have attracted more users than usual during the alternating traffic period. But their capacities cannot be extended in a flash. "It will take at least three years to make new subway lines," explains one spokesperson at the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation. A new loop, Phase 3, is expected to be completed by the end of the year, pushing the number of potential passengers to 4.5 million from the current 3 million.

"The metro is a success," says Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of the Center for Science and Environment, a renowned think tank. "The problem is that once you leave the station, the connections with other public transports are lacking, often leaving people no choice but to take a cab."

Bikes could be the beginning of a solution, provided there was space for cyclists. For now, however, cyclists only represents 4% of all traffic inside the city, and initiatives to promote biking have been largely unsuccessful.

"Bike lanes are rare in Delhi and when they exist, they're often being used by rickshaws, motorbikes or other vehicles," says Saurabh Kapur of Dwarka Riders, a cyclist's club in the Dwarka district.

Private initiatives

Infrastructure is lacking, but mentalities also need to evolve. "It's in people's minds that the change has to happen," says Piyush Srivatasa. "As things are now, if the alternating traffic system were to be prolonged, most rich people would have no qualms about buying several cars to circumvent the law."

The problem with India isn't the absence of legislation, but rather adherence to the rules. "Everybody would like a solution. But who's really ready to make efforts?" asks Ankit Avasti, who lives in Noida. "Two of my colleagues used to come to work together during the alternating traffic period. Now that it's over, each has gone back to taking his own car. And it's normal. Who could blame them? Everybody wants their freedom."

Avasti points to Singapore as a possible model. "There should be a tax on the purchase of a second car, high enough to really dissuade people from buying it. Unfortunately, the automobile lobby is very powerful."

In the absense of such regulations, some private initiatives have emerged. The French company BlaBlaCar is one of them. "Our activity has increased by 65% in Delhi and its outskirts," says a smiling Raghav Gupta, the local director. "Contrary to France, where our main asset is the price difference, here we're counting on flexibility. It can take you up to a month to get a train ticket in India."BlaBlaCar and other initiatives, however, can't fix the air pollution problem alone.

The multiplicity of issues makes the road ahead long and painful. But India needs to act urgently if it wants to put an end to a public health crisis that has already caused extensive damage.

According to India's 2015 National Health Profile report, cases of respiratory illness have increased by 30% since 2010, a trend that's visible in the whole country. Most of the attention is focused on New Delhi, but most large and medium-sized cities are also affected. Last summer, the most polluted Indian town was the eastern city of Chennai.