Raj K Raj / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
Last week, just after the celebration of Hindu festival Diwali, India's capital was enclosed in a thick blanket of haze and smog.
On November 2, 21 of the 37 air quality monitoring stations in Delhi registered in the "severe" category. Since then, the city has struggled with its worst pollution crisis ever. On the air quality index, an international metric used by public health officials that accounts for a number of major air pollutants, any reading over 100 is considered unhealthy. In some areas of Delhi this week, AQI registered over 900 according to daily bulletins from India's Central Pollution Control Board.
How does it feel to live in one of the most polluted cities in the world?
Many Delhi residents complain of watering eyes, a persistent cough and a dull headache that lasts all day.
"The air smells sharp and horrible; it feels heavy, as if it envelops us all in a slow choke. My sinus inflammation makes me miserable," said 39-year-old Reem Khokhar, who provides consulting services to tourism boards. The work brought Khokar to Delhi in 2005 and she has lived here ever since, but she says the pollution has become much worse in recent years.
Children, the elderly, asthma diseases and the poor who have no means to protect themselves have been the most vulnerable to the city's bad air, says Dr Vikram Jaggi, director of the Asthma Chest & Allergy Center in New Delhi. Every year when the pollution increases in the winter, Dr. Jaggi sees a 30% increase in his patients.
This month's pollution crisis has affected many aspects of city life. From November 3-5, 32 flights departed from Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi due to poor visibility. On November 4, the Supreme Court's designated Environmental Pollution, Prevention and Control Authority (EPCA) declared an emergency public health and called on the governments of Delhi and other neighboring countries to take action to deal with the crisis. Construction operations that could add dust to the air were temporarily halted. Schools were closed and the government's advice was issued and asked people to stay indoors. Brokers have been banned for the rest of the winter season and factories that had not moved to piped natural gas were temporarily closed. The Dehli government also reintroduced a rule, which first attempted during another pollution spike in 2016, that cars with even and odd registration plates were allowed on Delhi's roads only on other days, from 8am to 8pm. until the middle of the month.
But at the top of Delhi's polls, as people across the city struggled to breathe, two federal ministers drew wide criticism for tweets that either ignored the problem – or offered a puzzling solution.
India's Minister of Health and Family Welfare, Science and Technology, Earth Sciences, Dr. Harsh Vardhan, tweeted that eating carrots would help : "Eating carrots helps the body get vitamin A, potassium and antioxidants that protect against night blindness that is common in India. Carrots also help against other pollution-related health risks."
Meanwhile, the Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Information and Radio, tweeted an encouragement for citizens to "start the day with music."
Some answers were more serious. Tweeting with hashtags like # EnoughIs Enough and #BullshitNoMore, Delhi residents are urging the government to act. On November 5, thousands of people gathered at the India Gate, a national monument, to protest the government's inaction.
Among them was Navdha Malhotra, Associate Campaign Director for Help Delhi Breathe. It is a coalition formed by concerned citizens, local companies and support organizations working to combat air pollution by talking to students and the public about the need for collaboration and switching to renewable energy.
Since air pollution is largely invisible, an awareness has been created in the uphill, she says. But when it becomes more disruptive, public pressure increases. For septuagenarian couples Krishen and Rekha Kak, the restrictions mean even more limited mobility. Because of their back problems, public transport in buses and rickshaws is painful and uncomfortable. Access to the subway is difficult and taxis can be expensive.
"We only use our car when we have to," Krishen says. "We keep our doors and windows closed because of all health warnings. Our evening walks have stopped, and even the few things we need to do are kept to a minimum."
Rekha sometimes suffers from shortness of breath and eye irritation and has stopped her morning pranayama – a yogic breathing exercise. The crisis has had a throat problem for several weeks, diagnosed as pollution-related by two doctors. It became troublesome when coughs grew persistent, he says, but their medication did not help. And even with the right medicine, how long could he be expected to take it, he asks, when the cause of the condition – pollution – never disappears?
Air pollution is not a new problem for Delhi. The capital is connected between other states, the Thar desert in the southwest and the Himalayas in the north. When strong winds arrive from the plains, the pollutants they carry are polluted.
Sumit Sharma is the head of the Earth Science and Climate Change Division of TERI, a think tank and research institute that often gives advice to the Indian government on energy and environmental policy. He says their research analyzing the source of Delhi's air pollution reveals that about one-third of the pollution comes from poorly regulated industries such as factories, brick ovens and cement mixers. Another third comes from vehicle emissions. Smoke from kitchens in low-income or rural areas – which often use wood or cowgung instead of gas – and dust from construction are also the best contributors.
"These are the greatest perpetrators of the year," he says. But in the winter, he says, there is another pollutant that, when added to the mix, turns Delhi into a deadly cocktail.
Farmers in neighboring Punjab grow paddy and wheat. They use machines to harvest crops and this leaves a residue. During the winter season, after the harvest is over and before the wheat harvest can be sown, farmers started burning on their agricultural fields and burned the remains.
These fires are responsible for a 40% peak in air pollution during the winter months, says Sharma. But even though this practice has always existed in the agricultural community, there is a reason why Delhi has been so deeply affected by these fires only in recent years, he says.
"Groundwater is being dropped heavily in Punjab," Sharma says. Since poppy cultivation requires a lot of water, these farmers were recommended to sow their crops during India's rainy season – the monsoon – a month later than they did before. But strong seasonal winds during this time blow the steam straight into Delhi.
Last year, Sharma's group encouraged the local government to buy rye residues from farmers and turn it into biofuels. And in August, a group of 29 Indian and international researchers published a study in Science in which he recommended that the residue be disposed of instead of incinerated. So far, neither the state of Delhi nor the federal governments of India have acted on these proposals.
So what can the locals do in the meantime?
Indoor air purifiers can be much more efficient than carrots – but only when doors and windows are tightly sealed and the filters are frequently changed and cleaned, says Dr. Jaggi. Although many wear surgical masks to fight pollution, only N-95 masks designed to filter 95% of the small airborne particles caused by severe pollution – help, he says.
Earlier this month, the state government distributed five million of these N-95 masks to school students for free after the Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal tweeted that Delhi had become a "gas chamber" ".  But the masks have a catch, "Dr. Jaggi says. To be effective, they must fit tightly over the nose and mouth. But being a tight fit makes them uncomfortable and impractical to use for long hours. And for many children, masks that are intended for adults nonetheless poorly.
It is this lack of options that brought citizens out onto the street.
On the day of the protest at India Gate, Malhotra says it was exciting to see people so well-informed.
"Today "Dining tables are often about air quality," she says. "But when people say they just want to see the stars again, it makes me really sad."