Global Earth Challenge

Toxic air pollution suffocates New Delhi, northern India

The very air we breathe is suffocating us. Over the weekend, northern India — which includes the country’s capital city, New Delhi — experienced toxic levels of air pollution, prompting the government to declare a health emergency.

Polluted air has drastic health effects, including throat infection, watery eyes, black mucus and constant headaches. Research published this year in Journal of American Medical Association suggests that simply breathing certain city air is like smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Unsurprisingly, air pollution can shave more than 10 years off lifespans, as is happening in New Delhi today.

Nishu Kaul, director of South and Southeast Asia for Earth Day Network, resides in Delhi, which hit Air Quality Index (AQI) levels of 1,000 this weekend. To give context, anything above 300 is considered hazardous, and anything below 50 is healthy. On Monday afternoon, the AQI was 15 in Tokyo, 46 in New York City, 50 in Paris and 129 in Beijing.

“Air pollution is one of the biggest climate crises facing our nations today,” said Kaul. “The basic rights of citizens to clean air are under threat.”

Northern India’s recent crisis is a combination of many factors: exhaust fumes, construction dust, industrial emissions, forest degradation, crop burning. As for the last factor, in October and November, northern Indian farmers burn their crops, which, when coupled with slow winds from the northwest, can spell disaster, blowing the polluted air into the plains of northern India.

On top of these health hazards, the economic and societal costs associated with air pollution are also disruptive. Already, school has been canceled in many parts of northern India until Tuesday. Hundreds of flights have been diverted and delayed in India because of low visibility from smog. Construction activities have also been halted and car rationing introduced.

And the problem isn’t limited to Delhi and other northern cities. India Air Quality Information demonstrates the vulnerability of the entire northern and central region of India to particulate matter, a common air pollutant (track India’s air quality at this real-time map by the World Air Quality Index Project).

Unfortunately, this news isn’t new for India. Like the slow creep of climate change, the country has been undergoing worsening levels of air pollution for decades, with little being done to address it. From 1998–2016, the Indo-Gangetic Plain — home to 40% of India’s population — experienced a 72% increase in pollution, according to the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute.

“In our constant aim for economic prosperity and infrastructure development, we have become uprooted from our traditional values and customs,” said Kaul, referring to the lack of indigenous perspectives incorporated into India’s development. “A country which was once respected for its vast knowledge of nature and environment is suffering the most today.”

Fifteen of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India, according to a 2018 World Air Quality Report. In 2017, polluted air was responsible for 1.24 million deaths, said a study published in The Lancet Planetary Health last year.

Kaul worries India has become so used to poor air that this is the new normal. And if that’s the case, future generations are going to “suffer in the failed eco-systems resulting from human activities and industry emissions,” said Kaul.

If we start curbing greenhouse gas emissions, however, we can avoid the worst effects of a climate catastrophe and limit the smoggy air that comes with it. Learn more about how you can track air quality in your area by signing up to receive updates about Earth Challenge 2020, the world’s largest-ever citizen science initiative.

On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day — April 22, 2020 — millions will take to the street in an act of protest, pressuring politicians and demanding a new way forward. Join the EARTHRISE movement.