Why Delhi-dwellers are breathing in the equivalent of 40 cigarettes a day

There has been an exponential rise in the number of people, cars and burning crop residue, making the toxic air the 'new tobacco'
A man rides a bicycle along a road shrouded in smog in Delhi, India, on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. Air pollution levels skyrocketed in New Delhi and left India's capital shrouded in toxic smog as millions of Indians set off firecrackers for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Toxic air is estimated to kill more than 1 million Indians each year, according to the nonprofit Health Effects Institute. Photographer: Ruhani Kaur/Bloomberg

It’s not quite Dickens but Delhi now has its own mournful dirge on the city’s dirty air. “No one noticed / When the sparrows left / It was just another / smoggy winter morning,” wrote an unknown poet in the Indian capital. “Delhi bought air purifiers / masks, cough syrup / and tweeted in anger.”

(FILES) In this file photo taken on October 30, 2018 Indian yoga enthusiasts practice yoga in Lodhi Gardens amid heavy smog conditions in New Delhi. Residents of the Indian capital New Delhi lose on average ten years off their life expectancy due to the catastrophic effect of the city's air pollution, compared to their expected life longevity if they were breathing healthy air, according to a study published by the University of Chicago on November 19. / AFP / Dominique FAGET

The poem, which has been widely shared among Indians, has struck a chord with the stark way it contrasts middle-class consumerism with faux concern for the environment. Air conditioners, gas-guzzling SUVs and firecrackers for the Hindu festival of Diwali, the poem points out, remain on Delhi's shopping list, even as the city struggles to breathe.

Delhi's situation is indisputably parlous and seemingly intractable. While it doesn't boast the dubious distinction of having the dirtiest air in the world – that title belongs to Kanpur, in Uttar Pradesh – with a population of more than 18 million, Delhi is certainly the largest city with such dangerously polluted air.

It has high levels of particulate matter (PM), tiny particles that can penetrate the lungs, and even the bloodstream, and are extremely harmful to human health. Delhi has a PM of 2.5, meaning its particles are up to 100 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

World Health Organisation guidelines say such particles should not top 25 microgrammes per cubic metre on average. In some areas of Delhi, the figure often hits 700. By comparison, smoke from the Californian wildfire pushed San Francisco's PM2.5 concentration up to 221.1 micrograms per cubic metre, the equivalent of smoking about 10 cigarettes per day. On November 8, the day after Diwali, several Air Quality Index monitors maxed out at 999, double the upper limit of what is considered hazardous and equivalent to smoking more than 40 cigarettes a day.

But that reading is not unknown in Delhi. Exactly a year ago, when I was navigating the gray-brown haze that lay thickly over the city, the AQI reading consistently hit 999. Unsurprisingly, this year's WHO ranking of air quality in 4,500 cities listed Delhi as the sixth most polluted.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on November 2, 2018 Indian pedestrians walk amid heavy smog conditions in New Delhi. Residents of the Indian capital New Delhi lose on average ten years off their life expectancy due to the catastrophic effect of the city's air pollution, compared to their expected life longevity if they were breathing healthy air, according to a study published by the University of Chicago on November 19. / AFP / Money SHARMA

The consequences are obvious. Not just in the sense of the daily "death of the sun", as the author Charles Dickens described the smog in Victorian London. Every winter, Delhi residents report burning eyes, persistent coughs, multiple respiratory ailments and a range of other health issues. These are surely the result of breathing toxic air, or the "new tobacco", as WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus calls it. And Delhi-dwellers are agonising about the long-term health prospects. Air pollution contributes significantly to non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular and respiratory conditions and lung cancer, which are among the top 10 causes of deaths globally.

Those who can afford to try to stop themselves from inhaling too deeply when out in the open and limit their time outdoors. They use masks and respiratory filters when they are on the move and air purifiers at home. Recently, there have been reports of a number of well-heeled citizens – dubbed "pollution refugees" by the Washington Post – fleeing the capital for more salubrious places to live and raise a family. Those who cannot afford to leave stick it out. As one rickshaw-puller recently told the BBC: "I guess hunger is a bigger problem than pollution for us."

An Indian shepherd walks along his herd of sheep amidst heavy smog conditions in New Delhi on November 12, 2018. Air pollution in New Delhi hit hazardous levels on November 8 after a night of free-for-all Diwali fireworks, despite Supreme Court efforts to curb partying that fuels the Indian capital's toxic smog problem. / AFP / Money SHARMA

But given the crisis – and it is a crisis – why has it come about and why now? It seems all too easy to blame Diwali firecrackers, car exhausts, construction activity, coal-fired power plants and charcoal braziers. Diwali has long been celebrated, cars have plied Delhi’s roads for at least a century, trucks have long spewed noxious fumes, factories emitted smoke, buildings been developed and roadside chaiwallahs stewed their brews on coal stoves. So why is Delhi choking now?

Obviously, a key reason is the exponential rise in the number of cars and people, and a greater consumption of everything, as well as increased waste disposal. In west Delhi, the burning of plastic and electronic waste is a dirty and frequent business. But according to Siddharth Singh, energy expert and author of the newly published The Great Smog of India, the burning of crop residue from the farming states of Punjab and Haryana, near Delhi is one of the main triggers.

Vehicles travel along a road shrouded in smog in Delhi, India, on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. Air pollution levels skyrocketed in New Delhi and left India's capital shrouded in toxic smog as millions of Indians set off firecrackers for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Toxic air is estimated to kill more than 1 million Indians each year, according to the nonprofit Health Effects Institute. Photographer: Ruhani Kaur/Bloomberg

He argues that India’s “green revolution”, starting in the 1960s, unwittingly caused Delhi’s agony. It worked to support food security, crop prices and combine harvesters, which cut and thresh and speed up industrial farming. But the harvesters leave stubble that must either be removed by expensive machines – unaffordable to most Indian farmers – or simply be burned. The farmers do the latter and 23 million tonnes are burned in northern India every winter.

The smoke from the stubble blows into neighbouring Delhi and the air becomes a lethal cocktail of particulate matter, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide.

This is, of course, only an opinion – albeit an informed one – but it might be a good place to start to address the crisis of Delhi’s unbreathable air. Poetry, masks and filters offer only temporary relief.

TOPSHOT - Indian women take pictures on a boat as migratory birds fly overhead on the Yamuna River on a morning of heavy air pollution in New Delhi on November 20, 2018. Smog levels spike during winter in Delhi, when air quality often eclipses the World Health Organization's safe levels. Cooler air traps pollutants -- such as from vehicles, building sites and farmers burning crops in regions outside the Indian capital -- close to the ground. / AFP / Noemi Cassanelli
Rashmee Roshan Lall

Rashmee Roshan Lall

Rashmee Roshan Lall is a contributor for The National