Why Smog Chokes India’s Capital, and Its Economy?

Pedestrians walk past the India Gate monument shrouded in smog in New Delhi. Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg


For the third straight winter, thick toxic smog has enveloped the Indian capital New Delhi, forcing schools to shut down, halting traffic and sending residents scurrying to buy air purifiers and filtration masks. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of the metropolis that’s home to 20 million people, has called New Delhi a “gas chamber.” And it’s not even India’s worst city for pollution. Experts are warning of a major public health emergency.

1. How bad is the pollution?

The most serious threat to human health is from PM 2.5 — the deadliest tiny particulate matter that lodges deep in the lungs where it can enter the bloodstream. World Health Organization guidelines suggest exposure to anything below a level of 50 is healthy and above 300 is hazardous. New Delhi’s recent readings have exceeded 1,000, as they did last year. The situation has been deteriorating for nearly a decade. It got so serious that India’s Supreme Court slapped a ban on selling fireworks ahead of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, in an attempt to reduce pollution levels.

2. What’s causing the smog?

Mostly the burning of crop stubble in neighboring states. Kejriwal has specifically blamed farmers in Haryana and Punjab and their annual tradition of clearing fields. Vehicle and industrial emissions contribute to the smog, as do road and construction dust and fires lit by the poor for domestic use. Compounding the problem is the way that pollution lingers. That’s caused by the trough-like topography of the north Indian region, which prevents bad air from dispersing in colder months.

Pollution in Delhi on Nov. 8. Photographer: Sajjad Hussain/AFP via Getty Images

3. Why not stop the burning?

Crop burning is in fact banned in the surrounding states of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. But the practice continues unabated. Farmers are a strong electoral constituency. Getting them to change their ways is no easy task, particularly as labor shortages bite and push up the costs of removing stubble manually.

4. Why is it so difficult to find a solution?

As well as the farmers’ status, there’s the chaotic nature of Indian democracy itself, which doesn’t lend itself to coordinated action. Unlike China, whose one-party government has directed a concerted nationwide anti-pollution drive, India’s various levels of government have failed to make meaningful progress on an issue that sprawls across political jurisdictions that are run by rival parties. At the same time, it hasn’t become an important enough issue at the ballot box unlike, say, inflation or employment. At least so far.

5. What action is India taking?

The capital uses temporarily measures such as restricting traffic on alternate days or attempting to prevent the burning of waste. The federal government has accelerated the timeline for stricter emission rules; oil refiners plan a 288 billion-rupee ($4.4-billion) outlay on upgrades to comply with a local equivalent of European emission standards by April 2020. The Supreme Court last year stopped the registration of larger diesel vehicles in the city.

6. Is it just New Delhi?

Hardly. India accounted for 14 of the 30 worst-polluted cities in the world, according to the WHO. The Indian cities of Gwalior and Allahabad ranked second and third (behind Iran’s Zabol), with New Delhi the 11th worst — missing out on the title of the most polluted capital city on Earth to Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh.

7. What’s the impact on health?

The latest authoritative figures were published last year by the World Bank from data compiled in 2013 — before the situation worsened. Then, about 1.4 million people were estimated to have died in India due to air pollution. A WHO study put the pollution-related death toll in 2012 at 612,000, with a further 60,000 deaths in neighboring Pakistan. The WHO warns that increasing air pollution in many of the world’s poorest cities is driving up the risk of stroke, heart disease and lung cancer in some of the most-vulnerable populations.

8. What’s the impact on the economy?

The World Bank in 2013 estimated the annual cost of environmental degradation in India at $80 billion. According to a study by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, pollution-related illnesses drag down productivity and reduce annual economic output by as much as 2 percent in developing economies.

9. What should India do?

Implement the measures it’s already taken: Enforce that ban on burning crop stubble, hold to stricter emissions targets for 2020 and force construction sites to stick to rules on creating dust. Phasing out diesel cars and adopting cleaner fuels like compressed natural gas would also help, as would checking the number of vehicles on the road by strengthening the public transport system.

The Reference Shelf

  • For farmers like Prithvi Singh, it all boils down to expense.
  • A QuickTake on China’s smog.
  • Bad air means good business for some.
  • The WHO’s air pollution database.
  • Towards a Clean-Air Action Plan. A report by India’s Centre for Science and Environment.

Source and Photo-credits: Bloomberg