A Breath of Fresh Air for New Delhi

Last week’s heavy smog highlighted the scale of New Delhi’s air pollution problem, stoking public anger and pushing the government to declare a state of emergency. Can India finally step up to address chronic air pollution? 

The Indian government declared a state of emergency in New Delhi last week following six days of blinding smog in the city, with air pollution levels soaring to over 90 times what is deemed safe by the WHO.

Choking under the residue of Diwali fireworks and smouldering cropland, residents were asked to remain inside as much as possible. Schools closing down for three days as visibility dropped to 200 meters in some parts of the city. Desperate residents turned to social media to share their photos of the apocalyptic cityscape using the hashtags #Delhichokes and #Myrighttobreathe. Hundreds of others braved the smog in surgical masks to protest their right to clean air.

In the wake of the emergency, New Delhi’s chief minister temporarily shut off construction work and coal-burning power plants. Rainfall (and government workers hosing down the streets) will eventually wash the air clean. Past attempts at reducing air pollution have been hampered by bureaucratic inertia. Next year, the acrid fog will be back – and likely worse than before, if nothing is done to improve it.

An endless cycle 

The near-immeasurable current pollution levels are the worst Delhi has seen in 17 years, but the situation was far from rosy beforehand.

Scant rainfall in the winter means that harmful particles linger in the air for longer, while the city’s poor burn rubbish to stay warm at night. Farmers to the west in Haryana and Punjab set fire to farmland as a cost-efficient way of clearing out old crops; middle-class homes run off diesel-powered generators, and ever-expanding constructions and demolitions spray dust in every direction.

And that’s not to mention New Delhi’s affinity for vehicles: nearly 7 million registered vehicles clog the city’s roads each day. A large chunk of them run on diesel. A government-led initiative for all buses and auto-rickshaws to use compressed natural gas (CNG) provided brief respite from the worsening air, but rapid urbanisation and increasing traffic soon outweighed any improvement in energy efficiency.

Air pollution is a global health issue

In September, the WHO released a report citing that nine out of ten people worldwide breathe polluted air, leading to 6.5 million premature deaths around the world in 2012 alone. When pungent clouds nearly obscured Air Force One during Obama’s 2015 visit to New Delhi, bitter commentary noted that the president’s life span could be shortened by two hours for every day he spent in the capital.

Particulate toxic matter – known as PM 2.5 – includes smoke, soot, dust, dirt and chemicals. It has the ability to penetrate deep into the lungs. (A recent study found that PM 2.5 can even infiltrate the brain). Both chronic exposure and short-term spikes in PM 2.5 can lead to asthma, strokes, heart, failure, acute respiratory infections and lung cancer. As it is, nearly half of New Delhi’s school children have lung development stunted to a degree from which they cannot recover. The inescapable act of breathing is making residents sick. 

“New Delhi’s air is dead,” says Shardul Tiwari, a consultant on energy efficiency for GIZ-Nepal Energy Efficiency Programme who was in New Delhi visiting family during the days of school closure. “And dead air can kill.”

It’s time to clear the air

In 2015, world leaders set a target within the Sustainable Development Goals to substantially reduce death and illnesses from air pollution by 2030. With a myriad of causes, air pollution is without a doubt a complex issue to tackle – but the time to tackle it is now.

India may be home to 10 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, but it is not the only chronic smoker in South-East Asia. 90 percent of pollution-related deaths occur in low-and-middle income countries, and 2 out of 3 of these occur in the South-East Asia and Western Pacific regions. Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bhutan, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam round out the bottom eight scores on Yale’s 2014 Environmental Performance Index.

With effective policy-making, India can set the bar in addressing air pollution for its smaller neighbours, many of whom are also being smothered by urban expansion.

Long-term solutions

It starts with the farms. Farmers in Haryana and Punjab know they are polluting the air, but see no alternative solution. A seeder mounted on a tractor is able to plant wheat without disposing of previous crops, but well-known seeder brands cost up to $1,900 USD each – equivalent to the annual income of most farmers. A widespread central government subsidy covering at least half the cost would push many to make the switch. Government buy-back programmes for used straw, which can be used to generate electricity, would further prevent indebted farmers from taking a match to their land.

Then it moves to the streets. Road dust is the single largest contributor to PM 2.5 levels in New Delhi. German-made mechanical sweeping vehicles, acquired in 2010, were discontinued when it became apparent that the bulky machines could not properly sweep New Delhi’s uneven roads and potholes. Manual sweeping was resumed, and according to Tiwari, it’s only adding to the problem.

Investing in smaller sweeping vehicles (the size of a car or bike, as suggested by the commissioner of the South Delhi Municipal Corporation) with the ability to clean potholes and pockmarked footpaths will have a big impact of the level of dust on the streets. New Delhi’s municipal councils should also be encouraged to plant more trees in urban areas and keep existing parks clean.

Reducing road dust also requires slashing the number of vehicles on the road. Many cities around the world have implemented car-free areas or days with varying levels of success. Tighter regulations on New Delhi’s vehicles – following the “odd-even” driving schedule already piloted earlier this year – should be implemented with greater frequency and greater regulation. Reinvigorating public transport, whether through reduced fares or improved service and infrastructure, will help nudge even more commuters out of their cars.

Finally, New Delhi’s urban poor should be discouraged from illegally burning trash at night. Imposing small fines has proved fruitless; new policy should favour the carrot over the stick. Contrary to popular image, most slums are connected to electrical grids. Tiwari suggests that a large-scale, subsidized distribution of small electric heaters or solar lamps would provide much needed warmth without toxic smoke. Middle-class families relying on diesel-powered generators should also be encouraged to swap to more cost-effective solar powered ones.

Breaking down political barriers

With the city wedged at the meeting point of both state and central governments, briefings on New Delhi’s air pollution problem don’t necessarily fall onto neighbouring desks.

“The area in Delhi and around the NCR is divided in many municipal organisations with varied degree of funding and institutional capacities,” explains Mayank Mudgil, second-year MIA student at the Hertie School of Governance. “This makes it chaotic when attempting to define a common policy for everyone to adhere to.”

Dozens of bureaucratic bodies have a stake in the issue, but the ease of which they can deflect plans onto others is a core reason little action has been taken thus far. A clear policy plan involving both the state and central government needs to be established, with respective responsibilities outlined in detail. To promote cooperative policy making, Mudgil points out a critical need to digitalize communication between different government ministries.

“Real-time communication would allow for greater cooperation and tighter accountability,” he says.

Not all of New Delhi’s air pollution problems are difficult to solve – in theory. New Delhi’s array of bureaucratic bodies and bulging urban population ensure that putting policy into practice remains a challenge. That said, deciding to square off with this challenge is not only impressive – it’s imperative. We’re all entitled to the right to breathe, regardless of where we live.


Isabela Vera is a Master of International Affairs candidate at the Hertie School of Governance and Executive Editor at the Governance Post. She is currently based in Kathmandu, Nepal, where the air pollution level ranks over 20 times higher than deemed safe by the WHO.