Paying for clean air in Delhi

Delhi’s long-suffering wheezing and coughing citizens have been treated to a horror show of each government blaming the other for the state of affairs


The air pollution level in Delhi was classed as “severe”, a level that can make people with lung diseases more ill and cause breathing problems among those who are healthy. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
The air pollution level in Delhi was classed as “severe”, a level that can make people with lung diseases more ill and cause breathing problems among those who are healthy. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

When Theresa May arrived in New Delhi on her first non-European destination since becoming British Prime Minister, she wasn’t wearing an anti-pollution mask.

But a lot of Delhi-ites were—from traffic police to garbage collectors to well-heeled office workers and, most certainly, expats.

As with US President Barack Obama’s visit a year ago, all the talk in the local media—and much of the accompanying press corps—was about Delhi’s filthy air, rather than trade.

When Obama came calling, the subject of Delhi’s air pollution was at its peak. Monitors had been put in place, and New Delhi had just been declared as the city with the world’s foulest air. The American embassy in Delhi stocked up on imported air purifiers and one foreign correspondent hit the headlines with a report suggesting Obama’s lifespan may have been cut short by his visit to New Delhi. Obama wasn’t wearing a gasmask (that’s what they are called here) either.

Lessons, it seems, have not been learnt. The air quality plummeted on the night of Diwali, 30 October, with smoke from crackers and other fireworks adding to the ever-present dust particles in the air. Driving back from a Diwali party, Delhi briefly appeared like a dystopian nightmare from hell. Cars crawled in near-zero visibility amid a cacophony of howling dogs, clearly distressed by the sound of crackers.

Delhi is full of evidence of human distress too. Colleagues have clear trouble breathing, especially smokers. Your eyes smart constantly—not from computer screens but literally from the moment you wake up. People who are asthmatic or have bronchial allergy are looking to escape the city.

Shops have been running out of a particular brand of anti-pollution masks that come with two filters instead of one—sellers say you can go running and cycling in these, but it will take a man with an ox’s heart to try that now. A black market has been building up in some masks, shopkeepers say. The one mentioned above costs Rs2,000 in the open market but one shopkeeper who had run out of them on Saturday said they could be picked up for Rs3,000 outside his shop.

On Sunday, a queue built up outside another shop that sells only anti-pollution masks in Khan Market, Delhi’s plushest retail market. At a chemist in another South Delhi neighbourhood, Hauz Khas, a desperate young family was picking up masks at random, and were about to buy one each for all three until told that the mask they had chosen for their son was too large for his face and would, therefore, be useless.

On an average, in the week since Diwali, the level of particulate matter 10 and 2.5 (PM10 and PM2.5) has been 10 times higher than normal. These are minuscule pollutants that can settle in your lungs and enter the bloodstream. The air pollution level was classed as “severe”, a level that can make people with lung diseases more ill and cause breathing problems among those who are healthy.

But some things don’t really change, no matter how awful the consequences. London sorted out its problem with smog decades ago through a string of long-term measures, but in the Indian capital, it turns out, nothing much has changed since 2015. As with last year, there was a spate of newspaper reports. The environment ministers in the Delhi government, the central government and the governments of four states neighbouring Delhi—Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh—went into a huddle.

It turns out that they went into a similar huddle in 2015, too. And what emerged from last week’s huddle was that 42 measures decided in the course of the 2015 huddle have remained unimplemented. All that these governments needed to do was to implement these decisions, and they failed to do that. Did they even make a start?

As a result, Delhi’s long-suffering wheezing and coughing citizens have been treated to a horror show of each government blaming the other for the state of affairs. The Delhi government blames farmers in Punjab and Haryana. These two states are the biggest producers of wheat in India and important breadbaskets. However, their farmers have long practised what is known as “stubble burning”—setting a post-harvest farm to fire. The smoke from these burning farms is blamed for much of Delhi’s air pollution. But Punjab is headed for assembly elections, as is Uttar Pradesh, and only a brave politician would want to fritter away the agricultural vote by confronting farmers.

The central government on the other hand blames the Delhi government (the two really don’t get along well), saying only 20% of the air pollution can be ascribed to stubble burning—the remaining causes can be found “within Delhi”. The Union environment minister didn’t say what these other causes were, but Delhi-ites know them well: chiefly, polluting industrial units, vehicular emission, building work and dust.

The Delhi government’s response was to announce a string of emergency measures, including watering the streets so that the dust settles, banning construction work for 10 days and shutting down schools for three days. But these, residents complain, are half-hearted steps that do not really go to the heart of the problem. There are two long-term problems that authorities and citizens have to address: one, dirty growth or manufacturing and mining activity that comes at the expense of the environment and, two, the “business as usual” behaviour that is common among many Indians.

When the Narendra Modi government came in 2014, it promised to fast-track applications for mining and industrial projects that had been held up by the previous government on environmental grounds. Since then, environmentalists allege, it has speeded up granting clearances, often overriding strong environmental objections. And citizens’ behaviour certainly is a factor—desperate poverty can be blamed for pollution, but only so far and no further. The middle class in Delhi is notoriously uncaring about the environment, which is why garbage dumps are a common sight.

“Pretty soon, we’ll have to start paying for air,” complained a Delhi-ite, a professional who has moved to the suburb of Gurgaon. But you already are, I replied. Think of the gasmask you bought, and the two imported air purifiers you’ve ordered for your home.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

READ MORE