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India: Why Delhi keeps breathing toxic air every winter

Tanika Godbole New Delhi
November 9, 2020

The air in India's capital region becomes very polluted every winter. Vehicular and industrial pollutants, crop burning, and weather conditions cause the problem. Despite numerous initiatives, the problem has persisted.

Traffic policemen with masks work on a smog-filled street in New Delhi
Image: picture-alliance/Xinhua News Agency/P. Sarkar

Every year, the residents of India's capital region and surrounding areas experience hazardous levels of air pollution at the beginning of winter.   

Smoke from stubble burning in the adjoining farmland areas of the states of Haryana and Punjab, as well as fumes from vehicles and industry, enshroud the city as lower temperatures and slower moving winds trap pollutants in the air.

Read more: India pollution: How a farming revolution could solve stubble burning

On Monday, the air pollution in New Delhi was classed as severe for the fifth consecutive day.

The Central Pollution Control Board's air quality index recorded severe levels of pollution between 450 and 499 at monitoring centers in the city, with 500 the highest pollution level on the scale.

That score is more than 20 times the limit deemed safe by the World Health Organization (WHO) — it roughly equals smoking 25 cigarettes a day.

"A disadvantaged geographic location and regional meteorology with windy and dusty conditions during summer contributes greatly to Delhi's air pollution. This is particularly worsened by low relative humidity that increases particle resuspension," Prarthana Borah, India director for Clean Air Asia, told DW.

"In addition, there are episodic dust transport events from surrounding areas. As a land-locked megacity, there are limited avenues for the polluted air to be flushed out of Delhi. Nor is Delhi in the advantageous position of enjoying replacement of air from relatively unpolluted marine regions," she said.

COVID-19 worries

"Look at India, it's filthy. The air is filthy," said Donald Trump in the final US presidential debate, while justifying his stance on pulling the US out of the Paris climate deal. While his comments received a lot of backlash, experts warn that Delhi's air quality is bound to get worse as the festival season arrives in India.

Firecrackers during the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali, are expected to worsen air quality in mid-November.

A surge in COVID-19 cases, coupled with the rise in pollution, has made experts concerned about Delhi residents.

On Monday, Delhi recorded 7,745 new coronavirus cases, the highest daily number of infections in India.

Doctors have said rising pollution levels adversely impact people suffering from coronavirus-related respiratory ailments. A study published by European scientists last week found that exposure to air pollution can raise the mortality rate from COVID-19.

"Emergency hospital admissions linked with respiratory and cardiac stress and symptoms increase during winter months every year. Due to long-term exposure to air pollution, the health of the vulnerable is already compromised," Anumita Roy Chowdhury, director at the Center for Science and Environment (CSE), told DW.

"Studies show how children are growing up with smaller lungs, that every third child in Delhi has impaired lungs and a large number of children have pulmonary hemorrhage among others," she said.

"When smog episodes hit severe levels, even the healthy population in the city is affected."

Read more: How foul air in India is putting people's lives in danger

A persistent problem

In 2019, India's Supreme Court asked the states of Punjab and Haryana to stop crop burning, but that is yet to take effect.

Last week, Indian President Ram Nath Kovind signed off on the creation of a committee to come up with solutions for air pollution. The National Green Tribunal has reportedly considered a ban on firecrackers from November 7 to 30.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal launched the Green Delhi app, which would allow people to register complaints about violation of anti-pollution norms.

"The city needs massive scaling up of public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure combined with vehicle restraint measures like parking policy," stressed CSE's Roy Chowdhury.

"Immediate steps are needed to segregate waste and introduce recycling. Industries require access to affordable clean fuels. New emissions standards for power plants will also have to be implemented on time," she underlined. 

"We also need to change over to LPG for households and open eateries and eliminate use of solid fuels. This requires strong intervention with a firm roadmap and strong compliance strategy."