I spend most of my year waiting for January to arrive. It is the peak winter month in Delhi, bringing relief from the heat in the world’s second most populous urban area, home to 25 million people. It is a time when I usually reclaim the outdoors, organise picnics in the park, walk or run rather than drive and bask rather than hide.
But no more. In recent years Delhi has been judged twice as polluted as Beijing. The air is so toxic – often six to 10 times the internationally accepted upper level for the most harmful fine particles, known as PM 2.5 – that I have ended up staying indoors as much as possible. PM 2.5 particles are specks of smog – a mix of chemicals, black carbon and dust – that can penetrate deep into the lungs and then into the blood. Jogging while trying not to breathe deeply is an impossible task, as I quickly discovered.
This growing problem is far from hidden. Newspapers in Delhi now publish air quality information next to the weather forecast. I have an app that tells me how bad it is outside. Every arriving flight has to descend through a miasma the colour of dishwater. Style-cramping face masks are on sale next to coats and shoes in some fashion malls.
Jogging while trying not to breathe deeply is an impossible task, as I quickly discovered.
Primary culprits include road dust, vehicle exhaust, frenetic construction activity, tandoors (Indian grills that burn wood or charcoal), municipal waste burning and diesel generators. Sitting in my house, I cringe when I hear dozens of smoke-spewing generators growl into life every time a power cut hits.
Arvind Kejriwal, the city’s chief minister, lives in one of the worst affected areas. He coughs incessantly at press conferences. On radio adverts, he pleads with residents, considered the most car addicted in India, to leave vehicles at home.
This month the government decreed that vehicles with odd and even license plates would have to alternate day to day in the city for two weeks. Some early assessments suggest this cut PM 2.5 by around a quarter, while others dispute this.
I am part of the better off car-owning part of society that possibly contributes most to the problem and is exposed to it the least. The temporary driving restriction divided opinion in this group. Some called it necessary, while others said it was an attack on personal liberty.
I think driving restrictions should have started a few years back. People in Delhi and other Indian cities love cars, not just to get around but as a sign of upward mobility. Today, average car ownership in Delhi is still low compared with Western cities, but it is growing very fast. Every single day, the city adds 1500 cars to the roads. It is sheer madness.
Death by breath
For most people in Delhi the debate on car restrictions is academic. They walk to work, not because they want to hit 10,000 steps a day on their fitness trackers but because they can’t afford even the cheapest public transport.
What’s more, daily life for many is focused on the streets. I see traffic cops on the most polluted stretches, probably inhaling foul air equivalent to smoking three packs a day, hawkers and vendors selling their wares at traffic intersections, kids running home from school – all mostly unaware of what one newspaper calls “Death by Breath“.
Today, average car ownership in Delhi is still low compared with Western cities, but it is growing very fast. Every single day, the city adds 1500 cars to the roads. It is sheer madness.
They are also the ones who cannot afford a face mask or an air filter at home, for all the good they may or may not do. Like every other ill, the poor are worst affected. I grew up in Delhi and have always defended it. Now I wonder if I should leave the city I love to death in case it hastens that end.
Padmaparna Ghosh is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. Click here to view the original article.
Watch below as Ray Kearney, a retired medical professor from Sydney University, speaks with Lisa Main about the health risks associated with pollution.