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The New Delhi Pollution Crisis


New Delhi, the capital of India, with a population of 21.75 million, is ranked number 162 out of 231 cities in Mercer’s 2019 annual quality-of-living survey. Mostly due to air pollution – New Delhi is listed as the most polluted city on Earth by the United States Environmental Protection Agency in 2016.

The Cost of Air Pollution

Air pollution kills an estimated 7 million people worldwide every year, mainly by cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and respiratory infections. The Lancet medical journal estimated that almost 18% of India’s deaths in 2019 were caused by such pollution.

Particulate matter in the air causes the most harm in the form of cardiovascular damage, alongside with high quantities of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and carbon monoxide gases, putting inhabitants at higher risk of strokes, heart attacks, and high blood pressure, and worsening the respiratory complications from COVID-19.

Air Pollution in New Delhi

In 2017, the Punjabi Bagh district had a PM2.5 air quality index (AQI) of 999, and the RK Puram district had an index of 852. The scale would normally only run from 0 to 500, with the index being higher than 300 triggering a health warning. PM2.5, the level of solid and liquid mixtures in the air, were recorded at more than 11 times the World Health Organization’s safe limit, 142 times the guideline value.

The causes include motor vehicle emissions, coal-fired power plants and brick kilns, mist emissions from wet cooling towers, the use of wood and coal for cooking, fire from the Bhalswa landfill, metal-rich fire-crackers, and agricultural stubble burning. Additionally, New Delhi is exposed to pollutants from Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as dust from the Thar Desert (the Great Indian Desert).

Image: Konstantin Kulikov

New Delhi Fights Back

Measures have been taken in New Delhi, such as alternate-day travel ban on vehicles based on license plate numbers, restricting trucks during the day, stopping registration of diesel cars with larger engine capacities, and banning older vehicles from entering the capital. Technologies like the smog tower were introduced, incentives for electric vehicles were given, pollution reduction campaigns were launched back-to-back, but all with limited success due to the country’s dependency on coal power.

By 5th November 2021, most locations in Delhi were recording an AQI above 500, again, that normally is the highest number on the scale. A few days later, on November 15th, the Supreme Court ordered the central government to do more in response to a petition by activists in the name of the ‘right to breath’. The responses include shutting down schools, pausing non-essential traffic and construction projects, and 6 out of 11 coal power plants are ordered to close until the end of November.

Two days later, on the 17th, the head of paediatrics at Max Super Specialty Hospital warned the numbers of children hospitalised with respiratory complaints has jumped threefold in the past week.

“All these are ad hoc measure. Response has to be based on a statistical model for Delhi. The Commission [for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas] has to set up a scientific study… There has to be a statistical model which says if these are the steps we take in the next seven days given the wind directions, these are the advantages we can get,” Justice D.Y Chandrachud, sharing a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India N.V Ramana, said, adding that a graded response will be required.

What Next?

By the 24th of November, New Delhi AQI has been down to around 300 to 400 from almost 500, which is not a substantial change. The short-term plan is that schools and government offices will reopen on the 29th, commercial vehicles catering to essential services resume on the 27th. But the fight against pollution in New Delhi is far from over and this is not only a New Delhi problem, this is a worldwide issue.

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