NEW DELHI (Reuters) - When a toxic smog darkened the skies over the Indian capital last weekend and air pollution peaked to its highest levels this year, Nabeela Moinuddin and Fareeda, living on opposite sides of the economic divide, were panic-stricken for their families.
Moinuddin corralled her husband, their two children and two housekeepers into a bedroom of their elegant New Delhi apartment in Nizamuddin East, one of the capital’s most upmarket localities, and switched on two indoor air purifiers at full power.
In the nearby Nizamuddin Basti, a maze of narrow lanes around a Muslim shrine, Fareeda, who uses one name, locked her children in their one-room house but was powerless to do anything about the pollution streaming in from a large, shutter-less window.
Divided by income and their ability to fight the toxic air but united in their suffering from it, the 36-year-old mothers are among more than 20 million people trapped and helpless in the world’s most polluted capital city.
Both are uncertain about exactly what to do next and fearful of their children’s health as Delhi’s air quality index (AQI), which measures levels of tiny particulate matter, has remained in the “hazardous” category for most of this week.
Doctors have said coughs and throat infections have spiked because of the pollution and there could be long-term health consequences, especially for children.
Burning of crop residue in farm belts surrounding Delhi, industrial and vehicular pollution, and dust from construction projects causes a sharp spike in pollution across northern India as winter approaches. Low winds and colder air flowing from the Himalayan mountain range traps the pollution in a cloud over the region.
GRAPHIC: Delhi's pollution - here
Moinuddin knew the risks when she moved her family from Mumbai to New Delhi in March for personal reasons.
Her younger daughter, three-year-old Mehreen, had to be hospitalized with pneumonia during a visit to Delhi in 2017.
So, this year Moinuddin and her husband Danish, a partner in a management consultancy, ordered two air purifiers on top of the two they already had. Then they bought a dozen potted plants - areca palms, aloe vera, money plants and snake plants - to help clean the air indoors, a hand-held air quality monitor and four masks.
In all, they spent around 25,000 rupees ($352), a considerable expense by Indian standards but a fraction of their monthly household income that exceeds 1 million rupees.
Studies, including one by NASA, suggest that certain indoor plants can help improve indoor air quality, but some experts have questioned how much of an impact they can have in household environments.
Portable air cleaners, which are designed to filter the air in limited areas, can bring down indoor air pollution, but do not remove all pollutants, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
But nothing had prepared Moinuddin for the situation last Sunday, when Delhi’s AQI went past 900, more than double the 400-mark that can be dangerous for people with respiratory illnesses and potentially also affect even those with healthy lungs.
“At that moment, we felt very, very helpless,” Moinuddin said during an interview in her living room, surrounded by three purifiers and several plants.
“We were just holed up in one room. And whichever room we decided to hang out in, the purifiers went with us,” she said.
Some people like former Indian cricket star Ajay Jadeja, who also lives in Nizamuddin East, simply packed up and left for the cleaner seaside resort of Goa along with his wife, two children and his mother. Only his dogs were left behind, surrounded by plants.
“But what else can you do? You can’t breathe, so you escape for a few days,” he told Reuters by telephone from Goa. “I prefer to run away for a few days than put in a purifier.”
At a sprawling bungalow some miles (kilometers) away owned by the Jindals, a family that controls a steel to power conglomerate, about 400 purifying plants have been placed in the lawns for the bad air. Indoors, there are two dozen air purifiers, including one placed close to where the dogs are given food.
“We have installed air purifiers all around the house and in our cars,” Abhyuday Jindal, the managing director of Jindal Stainless, told Reuters. “The elders in the family are avoiding going out unless absolutely necessary.”
For Fareeda and her family, leaving Delhi’s debilitating smog isn’t an option. Between her part-time job at a non-profit and her electrician husband’s work, they make around 12,000 rupees every month - just enough to keep their household running.
Their small home, up a flight of steep stairs near a clutch of gravestones, is difficult to secure from the elements. It has only one window, a large grilled opening that has no shutters.
Still, as Delhi’s air quality plummeted on Sunday, Fareeda took evasive action. She ensured the younger of her three children - a 4-year-old girl and a 9-year-old boy - stayed indoors. If they did venture out, it was only with a handkerchief tightly tied around the nose and mouth.
“I wear a dupatta around my mouth,” she said, referring to a long scarf usually draped over the chest and shoulder. “I find masks very cumbersome.”
Fareeda has also wrapped a few money plants on her window grill, after hearing about their supposed benefits.
“But rats ate them,” she said, “Now I have to plant them again.”
There isn’t much else that Fareeda’s family can do, except suffer through the pollution, go to work and hope that nobody falls seriously ill, including her husband, who has a heart ailment.
“We don’t know how we’ll pay for food every night,” her husband Abdul Hanif said. “How can we think of an air purifier?”
And for the tens of thousands of Delhi’s homeless people, like Mohammad Islam, who lives with his seven-member family under a flyover near Nizamuddin, the severe pollution makes an already difficult life even harder.
“We feel it,” said Islam, 59, who makes a living mainly as a ragpicker. “It burns our eyes. It makes us cough and makes us unwell.”
Additional reporting by Adnan Abidi; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani; Raju Gopalakrishnan