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India's Air Pollution Triggers Comparisons with China

  • Anjana Pasricha

FILE - A laborer dismantles scaffolding near the India Gate war memorial on a smoggy day in New Delhi.

FILE - A laborer dismantles scaffolding near the India Gate war memorial on a smoggy day in New Delhi.

In the Indian capital, New Delhi, levels of air pollution hit a new high this winter, triggering concerns about its adverse impact on public health, and particularly on children. Environmentalists compare New Delhi with Beijing, the other major city also grappling with high air pollution, but warn that unlike the Chinese capital, India is not doing enough to tackle the growing problem.

Pediatrician Sanjeev Bagai sees about 50 children every day at a hospital, in an upscale market area in New Delhi. He said nearly half his young patients suffer from respiratory and chest infections related to air pollution. He called the situation “alarming.”

“Numbers have doubled. These children who grow up with COPD, that is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, die earlier. They are predisposed toward heart disease, neurological problems,” said Bagai.

During a decade of economic growth, Delhi has added more cars than any other Indian city, many of them using diesel, a fuel that produces a great deal of pollution. Today, the Indian capital has a staggering 7.5 million vehicles, choking not just its roads, but also its air.

Anumita Roychowdhury, Executive Director of New Delhi’s Center for Science and Environment, said that in just five years levels of particulate matter, which penetrates deep into the lungs, has gone up by 75 percent. The situation worsens in winter when it is less windy and a mixture of fog, car exhausts, soot and dust shrouds the city in gray smog.

Roychowdhury said that this winter, “the situation absolutely exploded.”

“Throughout the winter, the data showed that the levels were two to three times higher than the standards, and the higher ranges reached up to four to seven times the standards. And when we had the special smog episodes, when things were very bad, then the levels would even hit eight to ten times the standard. It was literally a blanket of smog. And this is scary,” said Roychowdhury.

The high air pollution levels have triggered a debate on whether Delhi’s air has become dirtier than that of the Chinese capital, Beijing, which has long been under scrutiny for its dismal air quality among the world’s big cities. Delhi’s comparisons with Beijing began after a study by Yale and Columbia University ranked India at 174 out of 178 countries in air quality.

Environmentalists think what counts is not whether Delhi’s air is more polluted than that of the Chinese capital, but whether the Indian capital is doing enough to tackle a fast-growing problem.

Roychowdhury is a member of a state body appointed to draft measures to deal with the pollution, and pointed out that while Beijing has taken a wide range of actions to tackle the problem, Delhi has not. For example, Beijing has limited the number of cars that can be sold in the city, scaled up public transport and issues health advisories on bad days.

“That is exactly what is missing right now in Delhi. [The] Delhi government does not inform people on a daily basis the quality of the air people are breathing, and when levels go very high, the asthmatics, those who are suffering from respiratory problems, cardiac problems, they need to be warned about it. The government should have contingency plans in place and longer term plans to be able to bring down the overall levels. It is not a fight over their levels versus our levels,” said Roychowdhury.

An action plan formed to tackle air pollution has languished for nearly two years.

Meanwhile, Delhi’s toxic air extracts a heavy price on public health. The World Health Organization said air pollution is the fifth largest killer in India, and the country has the world’s highest death rate because of chronic respiratory problems.

Several studies show that the impact is the worst on the city’s children, whose immune systems are less developed than that of adults.

The most extensive study has been conducted by the Chittaranjan National Cancer Research Institute, in Kolkata, for the Central Pollution Control Board. The study consisted of 10,000 children across the city from different economic classes and was led by Manas Ranjan Ray.

“We found that compared with the children from relatively clean air areas, children in Delhi suffer more from lung ailment, bronchitis, bronchial asthma as well as some neurological problems, some behavioral problems. In a nutshell, air pollution in Delhi affects both the physical and mental health of the children,” said Ray.

The Indian Supreme Court recently heard a petition that said air pollution causes the death of 3,000 children every year in Delhi. It has asked authorities what they are doing about it.

However, air pollution has yet to become a top issue with either the public or policy makers. With India heading for elections, and the gray smog of winter giving way to clearer skies, there is unlikely to be any quick action to address the issue.
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