The Perils of Breathing

In spite of its supposedly excellent green cover, the air in Delhi has become the dirtiest in the world

Hardnews Bureau Delhi 

For quite some time, Beijing had the misfortune of being the world’s most polluted city. If it wasn’t already obvious from the pictures showing roads blanketed in smog, numerous studies and hazard specialists pronounced their verdicts and issued warnings to unsuspecting travellers to China’s capital. For years, Beijing remained the eyesore in China’s non-exemplary growth, a fact pointed out by detractors to underscore the futility of unsustainable development. Some even claimed the air pollution levels in Beijing were like that of the industrial era.

Then, in January this year, everything changed. It turned out that Beijing had simply fallen victim to a seemingly unfair but necessary exercise: pollution check sensors. At least China was open to and investing in pollution level monitoring, at the expense of tarnishing its image as an aspiring global capital. But the January shocker held up the latest entrant in the hall of smog for intense scrutiny. According to a Yale University study, corroborated by other independent agencies, New Delhi has emerged as the most polluted city in the world. The satellite-based sensors had focused only on the particulate matter (PM) pollution in the air—particles measuring 2.5 to 10 microns—that penetrate deep into the lungs and cause the most harm. While the PM2.5 level in Beijing was around 200–250 micrograms per cubic metre (mcg/m3) of air, Delhi came out with a staggering 630 mcg/m3 of air. Let it sink in for a moment. The level of air pollution in Delhi was three times as hazardous as a distant second, Beijing. Just living in the city and breathing its air is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes every day. Although the findings of the survey were contested by local officials in the capital, who claimed the satellite sensors had exaggerated the findings, Angel Hsu, the lead author of Yale’s Environment Performance Index 2014, said that the team had to rely on satellite readings as
Delhi’s monitoring of its air and pollution levels was not reliable or consistent.

Moreover, the figures released by Yale were based on average readings. During festivals like Diwali, the PM2.5 levels in Delhi exceed the acceptable levels by ten times. Last year, post-Diwali, West Delhi registered a PM2.5 level of 936 mcg/m3, around 10 times the acceptable level of 100 mcg/m3

The matter triggered further debate when a WHO finding also released its figures and installed Delhi as the most polluted city in the world. The findings claimed that the annual mean of PM2.5 content in Delhi was 156 mcg/m3. While some scientists from IIT contested this claim, it reinforced the concerns of those who have bemoaned the indiscriminate proliferation of vehicles in Delhi and its sluggish commitment to environmental concerns. To some, the news wasn’t even surprising. As statistics from the Delhi Pollution Control Board revealed, Delhi seems to have offset the gains it made by switching its public transport system to CNG thanks to the ever-increasing number of cars in the city.

AnumitaRoychowdhury, research director at Centre for Science and Environment, warns that while the air in Delhi remains extremely dirty, severe energy impacts of the growing motorisation will be felt more and more in years to come. “If no further action is taken to radically improve public transport, walking and cycling, then Delhi by 2021 will gasp for breath, pay unacceptable fuel costs and spew warming gases like never before,” she adds.

While Delhi and Beijing both add around 1,500 cars to their roads every single day, the air in Delhi is additionally blanketed with smoke from the brick-kiln factories surrounding it. This is what differentiates its climate from that of the more congested Mumbai or Bengaluru, where the sea air and forests, respectively, offset the noxious emissions from motor vehicles and factories.  Considering all this, it’s a miracle that Delhi survives at all.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2014