Some call it “capital punishment” that kills slowly; others simply put it as air pollution — a lethal cocktail of toxic gases spewing from vehicle exhausts and factories mixed with dust and microscopic particles that sticks to human lung walls like industrial sludge.
Welcome to Delhi, the capital of Asia’s second-largest economy and one of the bottom-ranked megacities for foul air in recent World Health Organization data.
Or, goodbye Delhi!
The New York Times correspondent Gardiner Harris did exactly that after completing a three-year assignment and his parting shot was an article which whipsaws Delhi’s plague, its poisonous air.
He cynically demonstrates how the city is annihilating its future generation, which probably will have a very weak heart and weaker lungs thanks to a prolonged policy paralysis on air quality.
Harris begins his article with a deeply personal experience when his eight-year-old son, Bram, began gasping one terrifying night nine months after he moved with his family to this megacity.
“We gradually learned that Delhi’s true menace came from its air, water, food and flies. These perils sicken, disable and kill millions in India annually, making for one of the worst public health disasters in the world,” he wrote.
“Delhi, we discovered, is quietly suffering from a dire pediatric respiratory crisis, with a recent study showing that nearly half of the city’s 4.4 million school children have irreversible lung damage from the poisonous air.”
The article is another piece in a long list, reprising the rapidly growing developing world’s inescapable horror. The WHO says air pollution was responsible for over seven million premature deaths in 2012, one million more than tobacco, and around 88% of the dead belonged to low or middle-income countries.
Delhi, with a population of more than 16 million, could be described as the den of this monster because in places such as Dwarka and Anand Vihar, particulate matter pollution was three times the national standard. The city's air is more than twice as polluted as Beijing’s, according to the WHO.
The booming megapolis is a mother lode of opportunities attracting prospectors from across the world, not to mention the teeming millions from the country’s small towns and countryside looking to live their dreams. For some, the dream quickly fades because of the city’s unbreathable air and those having an option to leave, pack up and scoot.
The prime polluters are vehicles, factories and untrammeled constructions. Delhi adds over 1,000 vehicles every day to its overburdened roads and air; and an overwhelming number of trucks cram its streets at night.
The statutory National Green Tribunal recently banned old, fume-belching diesel vehicles from plying in the city and took up the onerous task of checking factories dotting Delhi and its neighbourhood, which are the prime suspects in contributing to the capital’s air menace.
Unless Delhi and its neighbours clean up their act together, as experts often point out, the national capital will continue to suffer.
Environmentalist Vikrant Tongad blamed builders in the national capital region, spanning the states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh besides Delhi, for the air pollution. “They are violating norms… heaps of soil at construction sites make the air dusty, causing respiratory infections.”
Much like land-locked Beijing, Delhi’s air is governed by its neighbours. Straddling one of the world’s filthiest rivers, the Yamuna, the city is buffeted by highly industrialised zones such as Gurgaon, Faridabad, Noida and Ghaziabad, where a housing construction boom ensures a 24x7 blanket of building material dust in the air.
A shout away from Ghaziabad, the east Delhi suburb of Anand Vihar recorded 490 on a scale of 500 in the air quality index maintained by the Central Pollution Control Board on May 28. Such “severe” category pollution seriously affects healthy adults. What it can do to people with existing diseases and children can only be imagined.
Just as Harris wrote, children are by no means the only ones harmed. Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal had to leave the city for 10 days in March to cure a chronic cough, a byproduct of the poisonous air.The Delhi high court was so alarmed over a report last week about poor ambient air quality on its premises that it hauled up its own maintenance and construction committee for not doing anything on the issue. It also sought to know what action the Delhi government and Centre were taking to restore Delhi’s dwindling green cover, which was supposed to be 30% but fell to 10.2% in 2009.