New Delhi parents consider leaving India's most polluted city over health concerns

City repeatedly ranks as the most polluted capital in the world.

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Parents in the Indian capital New Delhi are considering leaving over concerns for the health of their children in a city where pollution levels hover above safe limits.

The Central Pollution Control Board, a pollution watchdog under the environment ministry, on Tuesday released data that found that the city's PM 2.5 levels (particulate matter) were 99.71 micrograms per cubic metre in 2022.

PM 2.5 is the finest dust and other harmful particles that measure less than 2.5 microns and can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, causing respiratory and cardiac diseases.

The city has for almost a decade been the world's most polluted capital city because of its toxic air quality, beyond the World health Organisation's safe limit of five microns, that kills thousands of people every year.

At least 54,000 people in Delhi were killed due to air pollution in 2020, according to Greenpeace South-East Asia's analysis of IQAir data.

Tarun Banik, 36, has been looking for options to move out of the city where he was born and has lived all his life, because the pollution is causing health problems for his three-year-old daughter.

The toddler, he says, was struggling to breathe after having chest congestion caused by the city's pollution.

“For three weeks, she was on a nebuliser. She struggled to breathe because of the congestion. Doctors said it was because of the pollution. She has been advised to stay at home. How can we do that? We can’t send her to school, she can’t play outside. That’s not a normal childhood,” Mr Banik told The National.

“I am looking for the best possible opportunity to take her out of the city. Somewhere she can play and breathe fresh air,” he said.

His concerns were aggravated further after the city on Tuesday was declared the most polluted in India.

The data was released four years after the government’s flagship National Clean Air Programme was enacted that aims to control air pollution levels by 20 per cent to 30 per cent in 132 cities across India.

The NCAP initially aimed to promote better air quality by identifying cost-effective measures to reduce emissions from all the known sources by 2024.

In September last year, the government set a new target of a 40 per cent reduction in particulate matter concentration by 2026.

A blanket of pollution after a fire at the Perungudi dump yard in Chennai, India, last year.  EPA

The city, home to 22 million, suffers from the scourge of air pollution throughout the year but toxic air levels surge during winter when winds push the smoke from farmlands into the city and shroud it in a blanket of smog.

It is repeatedly ranked the most polluted capital city in the world.

The Air Quality Index in Delhi on Wednesday was hovering at 378 or "very poor" category, per the CPCB.

The data also found that the four cities with the highest PM2.5 were the satellite cities adjoining New Delhi, while the top nine are across the Indo-Gangetic plains in northern India.

Although Delhi’s PM 2.5 levels fell by more than 7 per cent since the NCAP was released in 2019, the desired levels are still a long way off.

Cities such as Allahabad, Lucknow, Varanasi, Srinagar and Moradabad have shown improvements in PM 10 concentrations of more than 50 µg/m³. But only 38 of the 132 cities that were given annual pollution reduction targets managed to meet them last year.

Experts say that the country still lacks an integrated air quality management plan, with already established tools such as air quality forecasting, continuous emission monitoring systems, a decision support system, source apportionment studies and emission inventories run by different administrative agencies.

“Things have changed and some actions have been taken across different sectors that have led to slight improvement. But NCAP has not been able to help achieve the target or provide better air,” Sunil Dahiya, an analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, told The National.

“To reduce air pollution, we need to reduce emissions from different sectors and that emission-based reduction target should be stipulated to states, which has not been done yet,” he said.

Mr Dahiya said that India will need to install more than 300 manual air quality monitoring stations per year to reach the NCAP goal of 1,500 monitoring stations by 2024.

There have been only 180 stations installed over the past four years.

“India needs to move to a sectoral emission load reduction-based approach for air quality management as it is only the reduction in consumption of polluting fuels and efficient pollution control at the source that will improve air quality in the long run,” he said.

Updated: January 13, 2023, 7:27 AM