India: Trouble in the Air

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India: Trouble in the Air

Residents of New Delhi are literally choking to death. Can authorities solve the pollution problem?

India: Trouble in the Air
Credit: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

On December 24, 2015, people in India’s capital city of New Delhi – already considered the world’s most polluted city – woke up to a nightmare. Pollution levels across this city of 25.8 million had reached such alarming levels that they were classified in the most “severe” category of PM 2.5 and PM 10. The former had shot up to 295 micrograms per cubic meter and the latter 470, against the recommended upper limits for the two pollutants at 60 and 100 micrograms per cubic meter, respectively.

These toxic levels of pollution exceed those of the Chinese cities of Beijing and Shanghai, internationally notorious for their pollution, and have some severe ramifications for human health. Delhi’s air is redolent of diesel fumes from motorized vehicles, which are now designated as a class I carcinogen by the World Health Organisation and can lead to lung cancer.

According to medical experts, the city’s pollution has also led to a startling spike in the cases of respiratory illness, skin and eye allergies, cardiac arrest, memory loss, depression, and chronic lung damage. Four out of every 10 children in the capital also suffer from severe lung problems.

“The city’s air is a slow poison that is ruining people’s health,” states Dr J.C. Suri, HOD of pulmonology and sleep medicines, Safdarjung Hospital, New Delhi.  ”The current scenario is extremely worrisome as the citizens are getting exposed to noxious air on a daily basis and for long hours. Vulnerable groups like children are the worst off.”

As if this isn’t ominous enough, air pollution is responsible for 10,000-30,000 deaths in Delhi annually and is the fifth largest cause of death in India according to the “Body Burden 2015” report by the Centre for Science and Environment, which measures pollution levels in the country.

Delhi suffers from what a University of Surrey study describes as a “toxic blend of geography, growth, poor energy sources and unfavorable weather that boosts its dangerously high levels of air pollution.”

So dire is the situation that Greenpeace has called for an urgent “Clean Air” action plan for Delhi with focused targets, clear timelines, and demonstrable accountability towards public health. An Air Quality Index (AQI) evaluation – which uses numbers and color codes to show air quality –compared PM 2.5 concentrations between July to November 2015 in Chinese cities like Jinan, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou with those in Indian cities. It showed most Indian cities have exceeded China’s levels, notably Delhi.

Greenpeace India also found that infrastructure to monitor air pollution is abysmal in India, despite the severe pollution. Compared to an average of four real-time air quality monitoring stations in all big cities in the U.S., around five stations in the major cities across Europe, and eight stations in major Chinese cities, India has an average of just two.

Classified as the world’s fifth “megacity,” Delhi’s exponential growth has been fuelled by fume-spewing industries, an influx of migrants, and a dramatic upward spiral in the number of motorized vehicles. It is predicted that the number of road vehicles in Delhi will surge from 4.7 million in 2010 to nearly 26 million by 2030. The city’s total energy consumption – supplied mostly by polluting coal and thermal power plants – rose 57 per cent from 2001 to 2011.

Yet prioritizing clean air is low on the political agenda. Given lackluster attempts at controlling pollution by both national and state governments, the judiciary has often had to take on the mantle of environmental activism. The courts’ intervention has resulted in landmark judgments, including one that pushed for the use of compressed natural gas in the city over diesel.

Under severe public and media pressure, a raft of measures have now also been adopted by the Delhi government. These include whittling down the number of automobiles running on diesel, and strictly enforcing the National Green Tribunal’s decision to ban any vehicles older than 15 years from New Delhi’s roads.

Road Rationing

Delhi has also embarked on an ambitious road-rationing initiative that is running between January 1 and 15, aimed at vacuum cleaning roads and making an early switch to Euro VI emission norms. This scheme has been tried in several cities – Beijing, Bogota, Mexico City, Paris, and Sao Paulo. Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has built a case for the move through a public sensitization campaign, even roping in schoolchildren to pressure their parents to opt for public transport or bicycles over private vehicles.

The exercise hopes to take half of Delhi’s vehicles off the roads each day during the time period.  This, Delhi’s Transport Minister Gopal Rai believes, will halve vehicular pollution, reducing the overall pollution levels in the city.

However, environmentalists say that focusing exclusively on vehicles will result in 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 percent of the city’s total pollution, industries and thermal power plants are responsible for a significant 29 percent . Burning of dry leaves, plastic, and other forms of waste along road sides 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.

Environmentalists assert that Delhi should also take a leaf out of China’s book and follow a formal mechanism of issuing pollution-related alerts to its citizens. Authorities in Beijing put out an “orange alert,” warning citizens to stay inside and suspending outdoor activities in schools whenever the pollution spikes. In fact Beijing has a four-level alarm system that imposes restrictions on outdoor activities, use of personal vehicles, and emissions from factories and power plants depending on how poor the air quality is.

Dr. Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of the Centre for Science and Environment, feels that alongside strong steps to bring down pollution levels, bolstering the existing public transport system is also critical. “Rationing the use of two wheelers is also important,” she says. “The two-wheelers comprise 54 per cent of Delhi’s vehicular fleet and making them follow the odd-even formula will be vital to reducing pollution levels further.”

However, transport experts feel such an experiment can succeed only if last mile connectivity is augmented by providing cycling tracks, increasing the number of state-run buses, improving travel safety for women, and adding to the fleet of metro feeder buses as is the case around the world.

Thirteen of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India and they will be carefully watching the Delhi experiment. For now, state institutions, government officials, the chief justice of India, and even central ministers from opposition parties, though exempt from the odd-even rule — have come on board to support the Delhi government’s initiative by carpooling to work.

The coming together of stakeholders and the political foregrounding of air pollution augur well for the city. But experts feel that this momentum needs to be sustained and a holistic approach adopted to tackle the hydra-headed monster that is Delhi’s pollution.

Neeta Lal is New Delhi-based senior journalist and editor.