21 July 2018
New Delhi's air quality is worse than that of Beijing, especially during the winter. Photo: Bloomberg
New Delhi's air quality is worse than that of Beijing, especially during the winter. Photo: Bloomberg

Delhi wakes up to air pollution, worst in world

People in New Delhi are starting to realize the gravity of the city’s air pollution problem, and are now doing something about it.

Indian and foreign officials have started wearing surgical masks. The United States embassy have ordered 800 air purifiers for staff members’ homes, and many other embassies have followed suit. At least one embassy, Norway’s, has told diplomats with children to reconsider moving to the city.

Companies have also begun requisitioning filtration systems for their office buildings.

During US President Barack Obama’s visit to India last month, several anti-pollution agreements were signed between the two countries, including one that will bring the US system for measuring pollution levels to many Indian cities and another that will study ways to reduce vehicle emission, a major source of urban pollution.

According to The New York Times, this increased awareness is partly due to the barrage of news and feature stories about the Indian capital’s worsening air pollution problems.

The stories, once rare, now appear almost daily, including regular reporting on spikes in hospital visits for asthma and related diseases. 

During Obama’s visit, one publication, citing an estimate by a scientist, reported that the American leader might have lost six hours from his expected life span after spending three days in Delhi.

“We felt this was an issue we should take up, and we have taken it up,” Arindam Sengupta, executive editor of The Times of India, was quoted as saying.

But Nicholas Dawes, a senior editor at The Hindustan Times, said media coverage was just one factor for the change in attitude. “I think the people of Delhi are increasingly unwilling to tolerate tough circumstances,” he said.

Government action on the problem leaves much to be desired, however. In its desire to bolster the country’s economy, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to double its use of coal over the next five years.

But recognition of the problem was a start. “The thing that gives me greatest hope is the huge increase in awareness that I’ve seen in Delhi just in the past year,” said Dr. Joshua Apte, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, who has studied Delhi’s air pollution since 2007.

Delhi’s air is the world’s most toxic in part because of high concentrations of PM2.5, or airborne particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter that penetrate into lungs.

While Beijing is notorious worldwide for its smog, New Delhi has worse air quality, especially during the winter.

Four city monitors found an average PM2.5 level of 226 micrograms per cubic meter between Dec. 1 and Jan. 30 — a level the United States Environmental Protection Agency calls “very unhealthy” and during which children should avoid outdoor activity. The average in Beijing for the period was 95, according to the US embassy monitor in the Chinese capital.

Delhi’s PM2.5 particles are also far more dangerous because the widespread burning of garbage, coal and diesel fuel in the city results in high quantities of toxins such as sulfur, dioxins and other carcinogenic compounds, said Dr. Sarath Guttikunda, director of Urban Emissions, an independent research group based in the Indian capital.

“Delhi’s air is just incredibly toxic,” said Dr. Guttikunda, who recently moved to Goa to protect his two young children from Delhi’s air. “People in Delhi are increasingly aware that the air is bad, but they have no idea just how catastrophically bad it really is.”

Already, an estimated 1.5 million people die annually in India, about one-sixth of all Indian deaths, because of air pollution. The problem is also ever present indoors because many homes use cow dung as cooking fuel.

The country has the world’s highest death rate from chronic respiratory diseases, and more deaths from asthma than any other nation, according to the World Health Organization. Air pollution is also partly blamed for heart disease, the leading cause of death in India.

But many long-time Delhi residents seem to have accepted air pollution as a given aspect of city life.

“Am I going to shut myself into just one room in my house?” Veena Dogra, 65, told the Times. “You have to be tough to live in Delhi. If you’re not, you should leave. And I have too much family here to think about doing that.”

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