Originally published in Frontline (India).
A week in Beijing in mid-February confirmed what many people have been saying for a while now: if you can somehow avoid it, it is better not to breathe the air outside. With one exception, every day was grey and hazy, the sky not so much overcast as simply limp, heavy and fatigued. The grand buildings and enormous skyscrapers that line the streets of the city loomed as hazy shadows, barely visible in the all-encompassing smog. The generalised greyness made it hard to distinguish between dawn, midday and dusk. The days were shrouded in dullness, while the nights made stargazing seem like a thing of the past.
The exception was one unexpectedly delightful day when the sky suddenly cleared to reveal a sun that actually shone brightly down on the cold city, on buildings and streets that seemed to sparkle in sheer exuberance in the sudden brightness. This was a gift, residents said, of dry winds that had temporarily swept away the smog. But it was a short-lived, ephemeral present, serving as an almost painful reminder of how much was being missed all the rest of the time.
It is true that this particular week may have been exceptionally bad even by Beijing standards. The city’s authorities raised the four-tier air pollution alert system to the second highest level (orange, just below red) for the first time in the year, as atmospheric pollution readings measuring six major pollutants at monitoring stations in the downtown area suggested an Air Quality Index of more than 300, more than 10 times the level considered “safe” by the World Health Organisation.