Dangerously high levels of air pollution this week have led Indian doctors and scientists to urge Delhi city officials to declare a city-wide health emergency. A 2014 World Health Organization study determined that Delhi was the most polluted city in the world.

Delhi’s Pollution Crisis

In Current Events, Global Perspectives, Maps101 by mapsbecky

Dangerously high levels of air pollution this week have led Indian doctors and scientists to urge Delhi city officials to declare a city-wide health emergency. A 2014 World Health Organization study determined that Delhi was the most polluted city in the world.

Recent dangerous levels of air pollution have led Indian doctors and scientists to urge government officials to declare a city-wide health emergency in India’s capital, Delhi. In 2014, the World Health Organization found that Delhi was the most polluted city in the world.

People in Delhi, India’s capital, have had to cope with unusually high levels of air pollution this November. People tie scarves over their faces to filter the dirty air. Thick smog makes it difficult to see. The visibility has been so poor that in one morning alone, over 20 people were injured in car accidents on Delhi’s busy Yamuna Expressway.

“The smog is so thick your nose and throat hurt if you’re walking outdoors,” described Delhi resident Anand Saxena.

Government officials advise people to stay indoors when possible. They are concerned that the pollution could increase breathing problems, such as asthma attacks. However, even people who have stayed inside still complain of watery eyes and difficult breathing.

On Wednesday, November 8, officials closed Delhi schools through Sunday citing “unbearable” air pollution. They have also halted construction of buildings and banned the entrance of trucks into the city. The Delhi Transport Corporation said it would place more trains and buses in service to help reduce the amount of car traffic. Even with these measures, officials predict that the smog will remain for two or three more days.

Harmful Air

Scientists determine air pollution levels by measuring how many pollution particles the air contains. As the number of particles in a cubic meter of air increases, the air is assigned a higher pollution number. The World Health Organization says that any readings of 25 or higher means that the air is unsafe to breathe. Delhi’s recent pollution readings have reached as high as 969!

Pollution includes such chemicals as carbon monoxide, ozone, oxides of nitrogen, and sulfur dioxide. When people breathe in these chemicals and tiny particles of soot or lead, they can get passed from the lungs to other organs. High air pollution levels can cause not only respiratory diseases, like bronchitis, asthma, and inflammation of the lungs, but also heart attacks and strokes.

Delhi’s hospitals have reported an increase in patients with respiratory problems. Officials warn that breathing Delhi’s air is equivalent to smoking more than two packs of cigarettes a day. Chest surgeon Arvind Kumar said, “I don’t see pink lungs even among healthy nonsmoking young people. The air quality has become so bad that even if you are a nonsmoker you are still suffering.”

Pollution in India

This recent round of seasonal smog is not unusual. In 2014, the World Health Organization studied air quality in 1,600 world cities. Delhi was ranked the most polluted city in the world. Doctors say that Delhi’s pollution has likely caused irreparable damage to about 50 percent of the children who live there, which is about 2.2 million young people.

Delhi is not the only Indian city with pollution problems. For example, the cities of Gwalior and Raipur have reported high pollution levels. Doctors say that air pollution is the fifth-leading cause of death in India. About 1.5 million people die each year from pollution-related illnesses. The medical journal The Lancet reported last month that in 2015 alone, pollution was responsible for 2.5 million deaths in India, more than in any other country.

Causes of Pollution

Delhi is part of a larger area called the National Capital Region (NCR). The NCR includes areas in the neighboring Indian states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan. It covers about 18,000 square miles, which is about twice the size of the U.S. state of New Hampshire. About 46 million people live there.

Delhi’s location makes it susceptible to pollution. Farmers in states north of the area use a technique called stubble burning. Although it is illegal, each year around October, many farmers clear their fields of the previous season’s crops by burning them. This makes the room needed to sow winter crops. However, the smoke from stubble burning sends pollutants into the air, which raises wintertime pollution levels.

Vehicle emissions also contribute to Delhi’s pollution. A 2014 study found that vehicle emissions alone accounted for 20 percent of the city’s pollution. Many workers must commute by car to work because Delhi lacks an adequate public transportation system. In 2016, this meant there were more than 10 million vehicles on Delhi roads.

Since Delhi is located inland, there are no ocean breezes to blow polluted air away. The pollution simply settles there.

“There is absolutely no wind movement,” said India Central Pollution Control Board scientist Dipankar Saha. “Moreover, temperature is also not coming down substantially which could have resulted in the conversion of the fog into water and subsequent dispersion of the suspended particulates.”

Delhi government officials blame much of their city's pollution on the practice of stubble burning in neighboring areas. Although the practice is illegal, farmers burn the remains of their previous crops to make room for new ones. The burning creates the sort of particles that contribute to pollution.

Delhi government officials blame much of their city’s pollution problems on stubble burning. Although the practice is illegal, farmers burn the remains of their previous crops to make room for new ones. The burning is a major source of pollution particles.

Solving the Problem

Officials still have other actions they could take in this current crisis. For example, they can limit the use of private cars to every other day. The government may even use helicopters to sprinkle water to help clear the air, although this plan is untested and unlikely to be effective.

In recent years, governments in the NCR have taken measures to improve air quality. Many inefficient power plants and brick kilns have been shut down in the region. Some areas ban the use of private electricity generators during winter. India’s Supreme Court also banned the sale of fireworks during the holiday Diwali, the Indian festival of lights.

These measures, however, were not enough to prevent this latest spike in pollution. Critics say that the attitudes of Delhi’s citizens are much to blame. They say that people do not put enough pressure on government leaders to address the problem. In contrast, in the Chinese capital city of Beijing, another city known for its pollution, leaders know that they will face their citizens’ anger if they do nothing about pollution. Also, while people in Delhi are open to emergency measures, they have not been quick to change any daily habits that contribute to pollution.

“What we’re unable to do as a community-at-large, and that also holds true for the government, is we’ve been unable to sustain interest beyond the three months of winter,” said Santosh Harish, assistant director of research at EPIC India, a research institute based in the US and India. Instead of looking to the government for help, people often turn to private solutions.

“Most people don’t trust the quality of water that’s supplied to their homes, so the solution that they found is the water purifiers,” said Govindraj Ethiraj of journalism site IndiaSpend. “So now what people have done is buy air purifiers.” Ethiraj added that only people with enough money can afford to buy expensive air filters. Millions of others cannot afford them.

Personal air filters are little help for people like Delhi resident Mukesh Kumar Srivastav. Because he is a security guard, Srivastav must stand outside in the smoggy air as he works. However, he believes Delhi’s government doesn’t value his concerns. “Our position is low, so if the government is not doing anything, what can we do in response?” he asked. “There’s nothing we can do.”

“The options for Delhi residents are three,” said Dr. Sarath K. Guttikunda, an air pollution specialist and the director of the independent research group Urban Emissions. “One is to stop breathing. That is not possible. Second is to quit Delhi. That is also not possible. Third is to make the right to breathe fresh air a people’s movement.”

Additional Resources

Read more about Delhi’s recent pollution crisis at CNN and the Times of India.

Learn about the world’s most polluted cities at the Guardian and CBS News.

Find out how you can help prevent pollution at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.

Images and Sources

Delhi pollution photo: jenspie3
Delhi pollution photo license: Creative Commons 2.0

Stubble burning photo: Neil Palmer (CIAT)
Stubble burning photo license: Creative Commons 2.0