Delhi smog alarms experts as officials do little to cut pollution

Studies show that the levels of carcinogenic matter in the Indian capital’s air is between three and eight times the acceptable healthy standard.

India ranks 174 out of 178 countries in global air quality rankings with the capital, Delhi, recording particularly high pollution levels. On Wednesday smog and fog enveloped Rajpath, further highlighting the problem. AP Photo / Tsering Topgyal
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NEW DELHI // Breathing in Delhi is becoming more of a health risk every day, as climbing emission levels undo anti-pollution efforts from a decade ago.

Thick blankets of smog covered the capital through most of last month, leading to bleak days, hundreds of cancelled flights and a cacophony of coughs on the city’s streets.

Delhi’s grimy skies have shot into focus after last week’s release of the Environmental Performance Index 2014, a study conducted by Yale University. In air quality, India ranked 174th out of 178 countries, ahead of only Pakistan, China, Nepal and Bangladesh.

In Delhi, the pollution, created by vehicles and industrial plants, is particularly severe in winter, when low temperatures keep emissions close to the ground, said Jatin Singh, who runs Skymet, a weather forecasting company in Delhi.

“There’s no breeze to blow smoke away, and the cooler winter air in any case settles rather than rises,” Mr Singh said. “But there’s also so much construction, so much depletion of Delhi’s green cover, and so many vehicles now. The pollution is getting more and more difficult to fight.”

In Delhi, the level of particulate matter that up to 2.5 micrometers in size, or PM2.5, which the World Bank classifies as carcinogenic, has increased from 168 micrograms per cubic metre in January 2011 to 183 micrograms per cubic metre last month, according to government data.

An acceptable level of PM2.5 is 60 micrograms per cubic metre, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, which also classifies more than 200 micrograms as “very unhealthy, as these particulates can infiltrate the lungs to trigger respiratory ailments”.

But in peak traffic hours, PM2.5 levels rise to startling heights. Over Monday and Tuesday, for instance, an independent air quality measurement agency recorded a maximum PM2.5 level of 473 in the Delhi neighbourhood of Punjabi Bagh.

Two out of five residents of Delhi suffer from respiratory trouble, according to a 2008 Harvard University study.

The severity of air pollution in Delhi last month has prompted speculation about whether the city’s air is worse than Beijing’s notoriously noxious air. Indian government scientists have denied this, telling the national media that Delhi’s average particulate matter level is lower than Beijing’s.

However, Angel Hsu, who headed up Yale’s pollution study, told the BBC that the Indian government did not make air pollution statistics available readily enough to the public and to researchers.

“Beijing reports data on an hourly basis over a publicly accessible platform,” Mr Hsu said. “Delhi’s reporting is not as consistent or transparent, making direct comparison impossible. Delhi may or may not have dirtier air than Beijing, but it is clearly behind in how it makes air quality information available to its citizens.”

The previous Delhi government had put together a plan to tackle air pollution, involving better monitoring mechanisms, cutting the number

of vehicles on the roads, and stricter parking policies. But the plan remains unimplemented, and the new government — formed by the Aam

Aadmi Party — has not discussed it thus far.

The deterioration of air quality reversed progress made in the late 1990s and early 2000s to clean up Delhi’s air, said Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director of the Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based NGO.

In 1998, the Supreme Court ordered public transport vehicles — buses and auto rickshaws — to use compressed natural gas instead of petrol. The move temporarily reduced pollution. In 2005, PM2.5 levels stood at 110 micrograms per cubic metre.

“Whatever little gains we had made in terms of air quality, we have lost that,” Ms Roy Chowdhury said. “From 2007 onwards, pollution levels have been rising steadily. The problem of pollution is growing more rapidly than our ability to control it.”

She said Delhi added more than 1,000 private vehicles per day to its roads, and that it has nearly 8 million vehicles on the roads, more than Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai combined. Seventy per cent of Delhi’s air pollution is from these vehicles.

In comparison, Beijing, which regulates the number of new cars registered each month, has just over 5 million vehicles on its roads.

Ms Roy Chowdhury said that Delhi — and other Indian cities — will need similar regulation to curb the number of new vehicles on their roads. But the authorities have their priorities backwards, she added. Instead of taxing car owners and levying higher parking charges, she said, India was widening roads further, encouraging heavier car use.