Air pollution is even worse in India than in Chinaby Jessica Abrahams / December 28, 2018 / Leave a comment
When you leave New Delhi’s international airport you are greeted by a sign: “Today’s Air Quality,” it declares, followed by a series of numbers in red. The day I landed the overall air quality in Delhi was registered at 348, which indicates the concentration of fine particulate matter. Under the Air Quality Index, “good” air should be no more than 50. By way of comparison, the overall air quality in London at the time of writing is 47.
Although the toxic air caused by rapid industrialisation and poor environmental regulation is more frequently associated with China, the situation in India is worse. In 2016, it was home to 14 of the 15 most polluted cities in the world, according to the World Health Organisation. In New Delhi, the winter months are the worst. A combination of low wind, higher fuel use and crop stubble burning on farms outside the city means the air is thick and hazy, giving it the appearance of a morning fog that never lifts. When air pollution exceeds 150, it can start having health impacts on otherwise healthy adults. Above 200 it is labelled as “emergency conditions.” Some of the monitors scattered about India’s capital this year have registered levels above 999—off the scale of the Air Quality Index.
The situation is linked to severe health risks among vulnerable members of the population who are more susceptible to lung, heart and other conditions. More than 60,000 children under the age of five died from conditions that could be linked to pollution in India in 2016, according to a recent WHO report—almost 10 times more than in China. While estimates vary, the latest data from the Air Quality Life Index run by the University of Chicago suggests pollution has knocked 10 years off life expectancy in Delhi, and four years across the country.
Unlike in China, though, air filtering face masks have not taken off in India, due to a lack of awareness, fashion concerns, and cost—only the more expensive masks are effective in filtering pollution. Instead, Delhiites find ways to live around it. For wealthier residents, that often means spending as little time as possible outside during the worst months of the year—taxi hopping between homes, restaurants and offices, which may have air filtering systems. Some people leave the city at this time of year, and surveys show that many are considering leaving altogether. In extreme cases, the city’s schools have been closed to keep children indoors. But for the millions of residents who live or work on the city’s streets, there is little respite from the toxic air.
The authorities have taken steps to address the issue, such as by banning crop stubble burning. But these rulings are poorly enforced, in part because it requires coordination across multiple agencies and between India’s many administrative areas with competing political concerns—a problem China doesn’t have. Residents in the city say they suffer the consequences of extensive crop stubble burning, for example, but farmers outside the city say it is the only affordable method of straw management they have. The government insists it is addressing the problem, and is now working on a national action plan for air pollution, though some believe it will encounter the same problems as previous efforts.
A week after I landed in India, I stopped outside the city of Jaipur, which sits about 250km southwest of Delhi. It was the first blue sky I’d seen in days and I rested for a while, enjoying the sun on my face. I checked for the air quality reading at the nearest station, which confirmed it was the cleanest I’d breathed all week: 187—”unhealthy,” but not yet “hazardous.” I took in a deep breath.