We’re no strangers to the rampant air pollution that is choking Indian cities, especially Delhi. Still, when US President Donald Trump outrightly called India’s air “filthy” on Thursday during the second presidential debate, it stung a lot of Indians.
The criticism hurt even more as it came from overseas and I now understand why - nobody wants their nations’ dirty laundry to be aired out internationally! But, putting hurt sentiments aside, we must acknowledge that Trump was right about his observation - India’s air is filthy!
While the US ranks second and India, third on the list of highest carbon emissions by countries, we are still facing hazardous levels of air pollution in Delhi during the winter season compared to U.S cities. This has become an annual pattern now and as of today, (Oct 24) the air quality index in Delhi is 401 which falls under the hazardous category.
The toxic air surrounding Delhites can also exacerbate the lethality of a viral infection such as Covid-19 and chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal is seriously concerned by this deadly combination as he says, “both affect the lungs.” Experts have also warned that high air pollution levels over a prolonged period can compromise the disease resistance of people living in New Delhi and it may already have.
Much like every other Indian, you must be wondering why Delhi suffers from such a severe toxic air problem? There isn’t a straight answer to this, but a myriad of factors working together to turn the city into a deadly gas chamber.
Trump calling India’s air filthy: A reality check on the worrisome pollution level in Delhi every winter
Every winter for the past five years, Delhi’s pollution has been the talking point on the news but the state government still hasn’t discovered a long-term solution for this recurring problem. Is this due to carbon emissions from vehicles and power plants? or is Delhi stuck in a disadvantaged geographical area? It’s a bit of both.
Vehicles and industries
Delhi is recorded to have over 10.3 million registered vehicles which contribute to 41% of the total pollution in the capital. That’s precisely why Kejriwal had implemented the odd-even scheme, a traffic rationing measure where vehicles with registration numbers ending with an odd digit will be allowed on roads on odd dates and those with an even digit on even dates. It was a successful scheme but only reduced emissions by a slight amount.
The thousands of industries located across the Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR) are also culpable for adding to bad air quality accounting for 18.6% of total pollution. Other than that, power plants and construction work are also significant pollution contributors.
Delhi’s unfavourable geography
Delhi’s geography, unfortunately, only makes the above problems worse. At the beginning of October, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) said northwesterly winds were set to blow over the city, which will facilitate the transport of pollutants from stubble burning states such as Punjab and Haryana to New Delhi.
Additionally, since the monsoon is retreating in Delhi, the wind is set to drop and change direction soon after, so whatever pollutants enter its boundary, it is likely to remain trapped. This uninvited windblown dust is responsible for nearly 21.5% of the pollution load in the city.
21 of the world's 30 cities with the worst air pollution are in India
An eye-opening 2019 World Air Quality Report by IQAir AirVisual listed the 30 most air-polluted cities in the world and 21 of them were Indian cities - a truly shocking and bone-chilling statistic. Ghaziabad ranked at the top position with fine particulate matter nine times more than the level which the US Environmental Protection Agency regards as healthy. It’s heartbreaking to hear as it was hearing Trump call India’s air filthy but we’re in a real air pollution crisis.
The researchers measured the levels of fine particulate matter, known as PM 2.5 to determine air quality. These are microscopic particles, which are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, and it’s their small size that makes them dangerous as due to it they can enter deep into our lungs and cardiovascular system.
Upon entering your lungs, they can cause havoc as the sulfates, nitrates, and black carbon in them can lead to lung and heart disorders and impair cognitive and immune functions. Going by the World Air Quality report, there are 21 cities in India where people are breathing toxins instead of fresh air - a health crisis waiting to happen.
Now that we’re aware of the problem, what are we doing about it?
Sarath Guttikunda, the director of Urban Emissions (India), writes in the Wire that Indian lawmakers are more focused on monitoring, AQI reporting, meaningless paperwork, and research rather than groundwork solutions. Yes, data collection and research are extremely valuable to understand the pollution problem but this appears as a way for leaders to procrastinate on enforcing the plans.
Guttikunda says that Indian leaders need to enforce air-friendly methods in transport, industries, waste management, construction, and demolition - everything encompassing urban planning, instead of endlessly planning them.
In 2018, the National Clean Air Programme had announced an “action measure” to enhance air-monitoring capacity and design plans to cut particulate matter by 20%-30% in 122 cities by 2024.
The plan is spirited but doesn’t demand accountability for the departments participating in it. Guttikunda, who had examined the plan commented on the same saying, “NCAP's proposed activities are nothing but new cells, committees, training, and workshops.”
A member of the official of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) confirms this by revealing that “things are moving slowly” - isn’t very promising to hear, is it?
“Once the allocation is done for all cities and the technology solutions are finalized, the work will get streamlined,” assured the MoEFCC official, wishing anonymity. We’re again left with ambitious plans and asked to wait as the targets keep getting farther and farther away. In case you are interested to monitor this plan, the climate, and energy news aggregator site, CarbonCopy has launched an NCAP monitoring dashboard to track the progress of India’s national air pollution management plan.