This winter, the air quality in Delhi plummeted so low – with record levels of the tiniest and the deadliest particles that can enter the lungs and other organs – that even the National Capital Territory’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, was forced to admit that the metropolis had turned into a “toxic gas chamber”.
The city’s thick layer of smog is no longer merely an inconvenience to residents or a danger to asthmatics. J.C. Suri, head of the respiratory medicine department at the government-run Safdarjung Hospital, says Delhi’s air is a “slow poison” that is ruining people’s health.
The Associated Chambers of Commerce of India, the largest business lobby group, estimates that “several billions of dollars” of new investment are under threat. A recent World Bank study shows Asia’s third-largest economy lost 8.5% of its gross domestic product in 2013 due to air pollution.
The major problem is fine atmospheric particulate matter of 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller, measured by the PM2.5 index. Many major Indian cities are badly polluted by that criterion, but Delhi is by far the worst: this winter saw the index exceeding the maximum 999 level recordable, while the World Health Organization’s recommended upper limit is 25. The level on January 30 was 294, garnering a rating of “poor” (levels over 300 are rated as “very poor”.
Yet prioritizing clean air appears to remain low on the political agenda. Experts say the current policy lays an overt emphasis on tackling vehicular pollution while ignoring other villains such as industrial production or the burning of waste in the open, which also contribute significantly to messing up the city’s air.
While vehicle emissions account for about 63% of the city’s total pollution, industries and thermal power plants are responsible for a significant 29%. The burning of dry leaves, plastic, and other forms of waste along roadsides add to toxic carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions. Doctors say inhaling these fumes is at least 10 times more harmful than inhaling the smoke emitted by vehicles.
“Why does the government wake up only when the problem reaches emergency proportions? ” asks an official from the Public Health Foundation of India, a non-profit organization. “The government has little interest in controlling pollution and puts up a semblance of action only when there’s a hue and cry.”
Public and media outrage sparked off a flurry of long-delayed government activity this winter too. Kejriwal ordered in early January that power stations be shut down, schools remain closed for three days, and a five-day ban be imposed on construction and demolition.
Sprinkling of water on fly-ash dumps near the Badarpur Thermal Power Plant and roads of at least 100 feet (30 meters) in width was also ordered. Licenses for diesel-powered vehicles older than 15 years are also being withdrawn. The authorities are also considering resuming an “odd-even” scheme, under which cars can only travel in the city on alternate days depending on their registration plate.
But environmentalists are unimpressed with the chief minister’s last-minute firefighting measures. Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of the Centre for Science and Environment, asserts that even the odd-even scheme failed to make an impact because the city’s transport system remains inadequate.
Delhi is the world’s fifth-largest “mega-city”, home to about 17 million people, and among the fastest growing population centers in India. Its US$84-billion economy has been expanding at more than 8% for the past two years, faster than the 7.4% national average. But its air quality is worse than even some of the those cities long thought to be the world’s most polluted. A comparison of PM 2.5 concentrations in July to November 2015 between Chinese cities such as Jinan, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou and their Indian counterparts showed that most Indian cities, notably Delhi, exceeded China’s levels.
One 2015 survey conducted by the HEAL Foundation, an anti-poverty charity, and Breathe Blue, a clean air activism group, found that four out of 10 children in Delhi suffer from serious lung problems. “The citizens are getting exposed to noxious air on a daily basis and for long hours. Vulnerable groups like children are the worst off,” says Suri. Almost 44% of Delhi’s schoolchildren have reduced lung function compared to an average of 25.7% in other major cities. Delhi kids were also 1.8 times more likely to suffer from upper respiratory symptoms such as sinusitis and common colds, and twice as likely to suffer from lower respiratory tract indications like a sputum-producing cough, wheezing and chest pain.
A sharply rising population, fume-spewing industries, and a surge in the number of motorized vehicles have exacerbated Delhi’s pollution problems. It is predicted that the number of road vehicles in the city will skyrocket from 4.7 million in 2010 to nearly 26 million by 2030. The city’s energy consumption – supplied mostly by polluting coal and thermal power plants – rose 57% from 2001 to 2011.
Given the lackluster attempts at controlling pollution by both national and state governments, the courts have often had to take on the mantle of environmental activism. Judicial intervention has resulted in landmark judgments, including one that pushed for the use of compressed natural gas in the city over diesel.
As more people move to cities, air pollution will increasingly become one of the world’s biggest development challenges, says J. M. Dave, a former dean of the School of Environmental Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and an air quality expert. He blames a lack of public awareness as a major reason for the menace. “Only when some global reports highlight the issue does it grab eyeballs.”
B. Sengupta, a Central Pollution Control Board member, blames Delhi’s lack of planning. In most cities, he points out, industrial areas are separated from commercial and residential districts, but in Delhi there are no such demarcations and the entire city has morphed into one thriving commercial hub. A University of Surrey study says Delhi suffers from a “toxic blend of geography, growth, poor energy sources and unfavorable weather that boosts its dangerously high levels of air pollution.”
According to the “Body Burden 2015” report by the Centre for Science and Environment, which measures pollution levels in the country, air pollution is responsible for 10,000 to 30,000 deaths in Delhi annually and is the fifth leading cause of death in India. More than a third of premature deaths in Delhi and Mumbai between 1991 and 2015 due to cerebrovascular disease were the result of being exposed to high levels of PM2.5, according to a study by the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.
The environmental activist group Greenpeace has called for an urgent “action plan for Delhi with focused targets, clear timelines, and a demonstrable accountability toward public health. However, there are few visible signs to show that the government is likely to heed any advice on how to tackle the pollution problem in a sustainable manner. Worse, Delhi’s residents fear that once the weather changes, official concern about the menace of pollution will dissipate like the city’s deadly smog.
Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based journalist