Article

“I Could Not Even See the Sign!”: A Personal Take on Delhi’s Pollution

It was May 2020 and I was traveling to New Delhi after a long gap. This smog-capital of India had been my home for 6 years before I relocated to Bangalore (a city in Southern India) in 2019. Then Covid struck, and I was not able to visit for a long time.
Anyway, when my plane landed in New Delhi, it was about 10 in the morning. Delhi summers are quite hot and bright, so imagine my surprise when instead of the bright sun, I saw an overcast day outside adorned with fog. So much so that I could not even see the sign that says New Delhi Airport right outside the plane window. It took me a while to realize what I thought was fog, was actually nothing but deadly smog! Also, did I tell you how I could literally smell the smoggy dust in the air even before the plane doors opened?
The picture I took from the plane, after I couldn’t read the sign. Smog is a mixture of smoke and fog, highly carcinogenic in nature. Photo by Varsa Mahananda
The picture I took from the plane, after I couldn’t read the sign. Smog is a mixture of smoke and fog, highly carcinogenic in nature. Photo by Varsa Mahananda

The deteriorating air quality index in New Delhi is a rising cause for alarm. Yet nobody seems to be talking about it. Covid has come and gone, but for the people of Delhi, a mask is still very much a part of their lives, an N95 no less. (N95 masks are made of electrostatic non-woven polypropylene fiber and they fit quite close to the facial shape. This makes them more effective than normal masks). Reason? The deadly smog that is always lurking in the air. It is well nigh impossible to imagine Delhi as a smog-free city anymore. But if you speak to the residents of Delhi, they seem unperturbed. It is as if they have made peace with it. They will tell you, ‘Yeah, Delhi has a lot of pollution, so what? That's just how it is.’ So much so that it is hard to convince even my mother (who lives in Delhi), to get an air purifier on the same grounds. I was discussing the horrible air pollution levels with my European friend and the seemingly careless stance of the people pertaining to it. He asked me whether this was because Indians believe in karma and go with the attitude: what has to happen, will happen. I tried my best to explain to him that this attitude mostly rears its head in terms of astrology and one’s personal destiny, not the atmosphere in general. He did not seem convinced. But honestly, who can blame him? To think of it, I wasn’t very convinced either! While a standard and healthy AQI (air quality index) would stay between 0 and 50, the AQI in New Delhi has recorded 457 recently. (Anything over 300 counts as hazardous). Such a number in a developed country would have led to a State of Emergency, but for the people of New Delhi, it’s just another normal day. Schools ordered shut owing to the rising levels in hazardous smog
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Ya-NNs931g

The situation has become so bad that schools have to be shut for a week or two every year around this time and people are requested to keep their children indoors and away from the pollution. Such a decision was taken for the first time in 2018 when the smog situation got so crazy that it became impossible to see each other when outdoors, even in close proximity. After 2018, this trend has continued every year, exactly like a family ritual. The situation has gone from bad to worse in just a few years. A recent study called the Air Quality Life Index published by Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago in August 2023 states that New Delhi is the most polluted city in the world, and that people are losing a significant portion of their lifespan due to such hazardous living conditions.
River Yamuna is not serene anymore: Photo by Ankit Sharma on Unsplash
River Yamuna is not serene anymore: Photo by Ankit Sharma on Unsplash

Every year after the Diwali celebrations (an important Indian festival in October that involves lighting diyas and bursting firecrackers), the score on the AQI index records dreadfully high. It stays that way for weeks on end. Also, October is the time when winter starts to set in, and all the fog in the air mixes with the dust and pollution to give the city an extremely clouded look (not in a healthy way at all), so much so that you might not even be able to see the person next to you while taking a walk together. However, Diwali is not the only reason behind the egregiously high pollution levels. Another major reason behind it is the agricultural stubble burnings by farmers in Punjab and Haryana. Reason behind the stubble burnings: Earlier, farmers used to manually harvest their crop, stalk by stalk, right from the roots. It was only during the 1990s that they got access to machines that could do the work for them, thus decreasing the time and energy involved in the harvesting process. Great solution! However, automatic crop harvesting machines had one problem. While harvesting, they would leave about two feet of the stalk from the ground, which is what we call the stubble. Farmers found it cheaper and easier to burn down the stubble before the next harvest instead of taking it out manually. Also, there was no strong enough initiative from the government to resolve this issue. Another reason behind stubble burnings was implementation of the water law in Punjab. To resolve the water issue in the state, the Punjab government prohibited the farmers to plant rice before June. This led to delayed plantation, which in turn led to a delayed harvest. There was hardly any time left between the harvesting and replanting for the next season. To overcome this short window problem, farmers found it easier to burn the agricultural residue that was left behind after the last harvest, instead of removing them by other, considerably slower and more expensive means. This, of course, resolved the water issue, bringing timely monsoons and replenishing the aquifers.

Farmer burning agricultural stubble, somewhere in Punjab: Photo by NEIL PALMER PHOTOGRAPHY
Farmer burning agricultural stubble, somewhere in Punjab: Photo by NEIL PALMER PHOTOGRAPHY

When the governments realized how the stubble burnings were affecting New Delhi and the nearby areas, they tried to implement fines on the farmers in order to curb the burnings. But the farmers still found that paying a fine was much cheaper than implementing any other method to remove the stubble from their land. What ISRO’s Ocean Colour Monitor says about pollution levels in New Delhi Right after the Diwali celebrations in New Delhi in October 2023 (when the AQI is at its highest because of the rising pollution levels caused majorly from burning firecrackers), ISRO’s Ocean Colour Monitor conducted an analysis of aerosol optical depth (AOD) levels in the area. Not surprisingly, the pollution levels noted a marked spike, especially since New Delhi falls in the Indo-Gangetic plain area. How New Delhi’s geographical location makes it more prone to heavy pollution New Delhi is located on the Indo-Gangetic Plain, or the North Indian River Plain, covering 700 square kilometers of fertile plain that is landlocked by mountains on all sides. So all the dust and wind from the mountains of nearby areas including Pakistan and Afghanistan sort of falls into New Delhi, and stays locked. This is a major reason why the pollution situation in New Delhi never seems to go away.

So much so that in winters vehicles collide with each other even in broad daylight due to the impossibly dense smog! Vehicles have to have their headlights on all throughout the day to avoid an accident. This makes driving in New Delhi during winters (when the smog is at its peak) all the more dangerous.
Almost zero visibility due to smog: Jama Masjid in Delhi
Almost zero visibility due to smog: Jama Masjid in Delhi

New Delhi and it’s famous odd-even rule To control the increasing pollution levels, the Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, came up with the odd-even rule for the first time in 2016. According to this rule, people could only drive vehicles with license plates ending with odd numbers on odd dates, and vehicles wth plates ending with even numbers on even dates. The implementation of this rule has been recurring time and again. It was last implemented in November 2023.
The New Delhi roads seemed to have lesser traffic, and implementing this rule brought the AQI level down quite a bit. The state government keeps implementing the rule for short periods whenever the AQI rises too high. Although this is a good attempt, it is not a permanent solution. Also, people try to find their way around this rule: either borrowing a car, or buying a new one. However, the rule comes back to life as and when needed, like a temporary resolution to the pollution levels.
The strange thing to note is the fact that Delhi prides itself on its strong and well-placed public transportation system: The Delhi Metro. Despite great connectivity of this metro transport system across all of Delhi, a lot of people still prefer to use their own cars to work. Sometimes you can even see a single person driving a 7-seater SUV. People also look down upon carpooling, thus exploiting unnecessary fuel usage (most cars are either petrol, diesel or CNG-based). No wonder the traffic and pollution levels are spiking way beyond the norm. Cab services like Uber and Ola did have sharing options, but that stopped after Covid struck.
Stuck in traffic, wrapped in unyielding smog. Photo by: Elena Raklionskaya
Stuck in traffic, wrapped in unyielding smog. Photo by: Elena Raklionskaya

What celebrities are doing to curb the issue A few celebrities have recently begun trying to raise awareness of the situation and provide solutions to the problem. One of them is Indian cricketer Virat Kohli who is reported to have partnered with Ola (an Indian cab booking app similar to Uber) for a campaign called #FarakPadtaHai (it makes a difference) to raise awareness about the rising pollution levels in New Delhi. As part of the campaign, Kohli was seen urging people to take public and shared commutes like the metro, buses, and Shared Ola (apparently, the shared cab services are being reintroduced), etc. This initiative is an attempt to bring down the pollution levels by a good amount. Another Attempt at Resolving the Pollution Issue: Last year, a new bill was passed by the government to mitigate the pollution levels: Draft Delhi Motor Vehicle Aggregator and Delivery Service Provider Scheme 2023. Under this scheme, commercial vehicle owners are required to transition towards electric vehicles by 2030. At the same time, service quality standards for vehicle maintenance have to be met as well. While this ambitious goal looks good on paper, it will be hard to implement, as India still lacks the proper infrastructure to support electric vehicles. So, unless huge investments in such infrastructure is part of the scheme, a big change seems unlikely.


Is change even possible? Currently, there are other cities in the world like Bogota, Warsaw, Bangkok, Seoul and Accra that are working hard to keep their pollution levels in check. Maybe it is high time for India to take a leaf out of their book to adapt to a more durable solution. While Bogota is working towards a completely electrified public transportation system, Warsaw has installed 165 air sensors in places and plans to phase out coal-based energy out of the country by 2024. At the same time, Seoul has banned diesel cars and signed a deal with UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) to understand and improve air quality. Accra (Ghana) was the first to join the BreatheLife Campaign to tackle air pollution. Lastly, Bangkok has launched the Green Bangkok 2030 project in 2019 and plans to increase its green space to 10 sq.m. per person by 2030. It is true that given the geography of Delhi, with it being landlocked from all sides, it is extremely difficult to keep the city free of pollution. Hence it becomes increasingly important for more stringent measures to be implemented in order to keep the hazardous pollution levels in check. We don’t have time to ignore this problem anymore. But big improvements for our health and climate would indeed be possible if we actually put our heart to it.
To learn more about the rising need for climate action, pollution control and clean air, watch this broadcast:



  • mary Mwihaki

    3 w

    Air pollution in delhi is a serious health crisis. Delhi needs to invest in clean energy and public transport

    1
    • Sarah Chabane

      4 w

      Thank you for sharing your testimony Varsa, it's very worrying and only a strong response from decision-makers will allow for it to be addressed

      2
      • Chris Ndungu

        5 w

        New Delhi has depict a bad picture to the country. Before this worry the world, it should worry India first and a dead serious opt to taken by the government.

        3
        • Marine Stephan

          5 w

          This is truly scary. Why isn't the government doing more to tackle this issue?

          4
          • Munene Mugambi

            5 w

            This article goes a long way to show the projections of breathing air on some Indian cities is the same as smoking two packs of cigarettes in a day. The health effects are the same on one's lungs. The health effects of this horrible air are also atrocious and affect our planet as much. We need to do something to arrest this situation before it capitulates us all.

            2
            • Vermeer Xie

              5 w

              New Delhi is the bloody example of our future world. If we don't react fast, wherever we are living, it will be part of our daily life.

              7
              • George Kariuki

                5 w

                This is awful! Air pollution in Delhi is a serious public health crisis. People shouldn't have to wear masks just to breathe, Delhi needs to invest in clean energy & public transport to reduce traffic & emissions.

                8
                • Munene Mugambi

                  5 w

                  @george_kariuki Honestly, unless the people of New Delhi are to wear industry grade masks, I doubt the normal mask would make a difference. And, no one at all should have to deal with such terrible living conditions, no one.

                  2
                  • Rashid Kamau

                    5 w

                    @george_kariuki Delhi is in pollution's ever tightening chokehold, causing catastrophic health harms. They must act before it's too late.

                    2
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