Green Cities

New Delhi’s Toxic Air is Finally Raising Concern

Climate and pollution issues have held little interest to Indian diplomats in the past. This is changing.   What’s causing all the attention? New Delhi has the most toxic air in the world. This alone should be enough to raise a couple heads. The Times of India executive editor, Arindam Sengupta, credits the new awareness to air pollution to the coverage of the issues in national and international news outlets. For the past year, reports on air pollution and hospital visits due to asthma and pollution problems run almost daily. Nicholas Dawes, editor at The Hindustan Times also suggests that “the people of Delhi are increasingly unwilling to tolerate tough circumstances.”   The main culprits of pollution in this rapidly growing city are coal powered plants and old cars without catalytic converters that convert toxic pollution to less toxic forms. They both emit high concentrations of particles less than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) that penetrate deeply into lungs. Health issues exacerbate in the winter months when thick smog clouds hang over the expansive city.   Though images of masses wearing white surgical masks and crowds holding handkerchiefs over their mouths evoke the thought of Beijing, we really should be thinking about New Delhi. The city has the highest levels of PM2.5. During the months of December and January, city monitors calculated an average of 226 micrograms per cubic meter. In Beijing, the average for the same period was 95. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency’s measures the 226 as “very unhealthy”  at which children should avoid outdoor activity. This is normal in New Delhi.   Besides being more abundant, PM2.5 in New Delhi is also more dangerous than those in other places of the world due to garbage burning, diesel fuel, and the use of cow dung as cooking fuel that release carcinogenic compounds. Death tolls of air pollution quantify the horror of PM2.5. About 1.5 million people die annually from the combination of indoor and outdoor pollution. India also has the world’s highest death rate from respiratory diseases.   Some are flourishing in this new market desperate for air filtration systems for office buildings and the homes of Indian elites and foreigners. The Delhi-based company BreatheEasy began servicing diplomatic clients and with the rise of air pollution, many Indian elites are purchasing air filtration systems. The U.S Embassy in New Delhi purchased 1,800 purifiers ahead of Obama’s visit in late January. But with a $500 price tag, the filters do not offer a solution for India’s rampant air pollution problems.   Though the issues are being reported, the government has not yet responded with policies and action. Recently, embassies have advised diplomats with children to reconsider moving to New Delhi and there are reports of tour groups being cut short due health concerns with pollution. New Delhi natives with young children are also moving out of the city—at least those who can afford to do so.   What’s the next step? India’s government needs to respond. Indian diplomats have already asked the American government for help. Obama’ responded in his visit to India last month with the suggestion to bring the EPA’s air pollution measuring system to India. Cooperation is a start to solving air pollution but India must focus on clean energy to propel the country’s growth and protect the health of their billion residents.   Attiya Sayyed, Communications and Programs Associate