Delhi, the capital territory of India, is home to unbreathable air and undrinkable water.

From the skies above to the ground below, Delhi is polluted. This Indian territory, which includes the capital city of New Delhi, is half the size of Rhode Island, and is home to twice the population of New York City.

Beijing, China, often makes headlines for its polluted air, but a global study of air pollution in 2014 by the World Health Organization found that Delhi’s air contained several times more fine particulate pollution than Beijing’s. By most measurements, it’s the most polluted area in the world.

To get a glimpse of what it’s like to live in these conditions, photographer Matthieu Paley spent five days walking across Delhi. Through his photographs, we see the physical results of intense urbanization, density of cars, and the practice of burning refuse. All contribute to the thick, yellow haze over the city. Even the sacred Yamuna River isn’t exempt from severe pollution. The river is second only to the Ganges in religious significance to practicing Hindus, and for 855 miles (1,376 kilometers) it flows through India, providing water to 57 million people. Eighty percent of the pollution in the river enters along the 14-mile (22.5-kilometer) stretch that goes through Delhi. Soil erosion, waste disposal, and chemical runoff leave the waters black in some places and covered with a white film in others.

 

A WALK THROUGH DELHI’S POLLUTED STREETS

A village in northern Delhi sits below an open-air garbage dump. The dump is constantly burning, creating haze at all hours.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHIEU PALEY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Nearby industries dump their chemical waste into the Yamuna, which has left the river blanketed in toxic foam. PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHIEU PALEY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Impoverished people in India often have no housing options other than living next to open sewers, like this one in Noida, a city on the border of New Delhi.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHIEU PALEY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A young girl and her neighbors are among those whose families have lived along the Shahadra sewer for years. The accumulating garbage has grown progressively worse, making daily life increasingly more difficult.

Men bleach laundry before rinsing it in the polluted Yamuna River.

Freshly bleached clothes hang to dry below an overpass in Delhi, next to an open sewer.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHIEU PALEY, NAITONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A young boy climbs the side of his house, which is part of the neighborhood situated along the Shahadra open sewer. PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHIEU PALEY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A man works in a factory that dyes blue jeans in Silampur district, one of the most polluted and densely populated parts of Delhi. PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHIEU PALEY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A boy and his father make a home underneath an overpass in Delhi. They will look through trash for pieces of metal to recycle for money. PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHIEU PALEY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A dairy farm sits between a massive construction project and a garbage dump. Livestock are regularly in contact with waste, increasing the risk of contaminated dairy products.

Delhi residents bathe and perform ablutions from the steps of the Nizamuddin Sufi shrine in Delhi. These steps used to be the spot where people would collect freshwater, but it’s now just as polluted as any other water source in the city.

A freshly cleaned stroller sits next to the Shahadra sewer, where many impoverished citizens of Delhi make their homes.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHIEU PALEY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Sunita Narain is the director of the Centre for Science andEnvironment (CSE), based in New Delhi, and she was just named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People for her work in India’s environmental

policy and justice. In 2010 she wrote, “The river, by all pollution parameters, is dead. It has just not been officially cremated.”

The Yamuna is spiritually and practically central to the lives of people who live near it. Children play in the water, men wash and bleach shirts, people of all ages bathe in and drink from the river in the belief it will absolve them of sin.

And for some, the waste and garbage presents a way to make a living. While Paley photographed people’s interactions with their surroundings, he met men, women, and children who daily combed dumps and riverbanks for pieces of metal, plastic, and paper they could recycle. On a great day, they can earn 1,000 rupees—the equivalent of $15 and three times the average daily wage of other workers in the city.

 

SORTING THROUGH THE TRASH

In a dump in Bhalswa, Delhi, that seems to stretch for miles, a young girl searches for plastic.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHIEU PALEY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

This picture, taken from atop an open-air dump, shows the haze that hangs above Delhi.

A young recycler rinses off near a sewer, where he has been searching for trash to be redeemed for money.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHIEU PALEY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Women search the Ghazipur dump in Delhi for metal they can redeem for money. On a good day, a recycler can make up to 1,000 rupees, the equivalent of $15.

Children also act as recyclers, searching the polluted Yamuna River for religious items tossed in from bridges above. The objects, ranging from coins to small metal statues, can then be given to recycling shops for money.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHIEU PALEY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Recyclers light motor parts on fire to burn off excess oil. For many living along the Yamuna River, recycling is their primary source of income.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHIEU PALEY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Diseases such as dengue fever are a threat for those who live along the polluted river and open sewers. Here, a man sleeps under a mosquito net as a safety measure.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHIEU PALEY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Children float on the polluted Yamuna River to look for any garbage that might be valuable.

Burning garbage dumps, like this one in Bhalswa, account for a significant portion of air pollution in Delhi.

Recyclers wait under a bridge for garbage collectors to bring them trash for sorting.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHIEU PALEY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Underneath a bridge, recyclers sort garbage by type. They will then sell it to people who will truck the trash to recycling factories outside of Delhi.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHIEU PALEY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Men work in a recycling plant in Noida at night.

A metal recycler in Noida talks on his cell phone.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHIEU PALEY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A man and child bathe in the Yamuna River. The stretch of Yamuna that flows through Delhi is only 2 percent of the river, but accounts for 80 percent of the river’s pollution. Because of the high level of pollution, authorities have instructed people not to wash their animals in the river.

Child recyclers, some of whom are orphans, live, work, and play in the polluted waters of the Yamuna River.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHIEU PALEY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

In October 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a national campaign called Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, meaning “Clean India Mission.” While it sounds well-intentioned, the announcement came one week after the announcement for a campaign called “Make In India,” which encourages international corporations to bring their manufacturing jobs to India—a goal many see as contradictory to promoting a cleaner environment.

The CSE has been critical of these campaigns, and in 2015 it released a report saying that the government’s budget revealed no strategy for moving forward with environmental policy. Deputy Director Chandra Bhushan wrote, “The bottom-line is, be it air pollution, water pollution or municipal solid waste, managing environmental degradation requires massive investments in infrastructure.”

While Delhi may have waste-treatment plants, it lacks the necessary sewer infrastructure that would carry the waste there. Paley noticed that even aboveground he often couldn’t find basic infrastructure like public trash cans. “There have been times I’ve had garbage in my hands and I’ve had to carry it with me all day, because there are no bins anywhere,” he remembered.

 

This feature was written by Melody Rowell and originally appeared in National Geographic.

 

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