Indian cricket is usually a jubilant spectacle, but it was sombre on 3 December 2017, when a test match between India and Sri Lanka, being held in New Delhi, had to be stopped after players complained that toxic air was causing them to vomit. The events were an uncomfortable reminder of the scale of India’s pollution problem. According to the 2019 World Air Quality Report, the nation harbours 21 of the world’s 30 cities with the worst levels of air pollution; six are in the top ten.
The impacts are ‘nothing short of a public health emergency,’ says William Bloss, air quality expert at the University of Birmingham. Recent research published in The Lancet, a medical journal, estimates that in 2019 alone, 1.67 million Indians died from the effects of pollution – one in six of the country’s deaths. Antipollution efforts guzzle 5.4 per cent of India’s GDP, but the issue continues to cause 980,000 pre-term births every year and incurs US$11.9 billion in health costs spent on treating pollution-related illnesses.
In New Delhi, a number of factors combine to exacerbate the issue. The city has the highest cluster of small-scale industries in India. The nearly 3,200 industries located across the Delhi National Capital Region contribute 19 per cent of New Delhi’s pollution.
Geography, climate and seasonality also play a role. Where the air in Mumbai and Kolkata is swept away by coastal breezes, inland Delhi is caught between the states of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, where mass burning of rice and wheat crop waste takes place during winter. Across the wider Indo-Gangetic plain, home to 600 million people, the Himalaya trap fumes produced by coal-fired power plants, the diesel pumps used for irrigation and cremation pyres. Fireworks and bonfires during the Diwali festival in mid-November add to the problem.
This polluting miasma swirls with the particulate matter and sulphur dioxide released from the wood and cow-dung cakes that city-dwellers burn to keep warm on winter nights. Ten million new inhabitants arrived to New Delhi this century alone. ‘This puts Delhi in an odd situation,’ says Prashant Kumar, an expert in air quality at the University of Surrey. ‘Pollution has many millions of producers, but very few who are responsible for controlling it.’
Nonetheless, those in power have been launching policies to control the problem. Perhaps the broadest-reaching initiative is the National Clean Air Programme. Launched in 2019, it aims to reduce levels of PM 2.5 (fine, inhalable particles with diameters of 2.5 micrometres or less) by 20–30 per cent by 2024 compared to 2017 levels. This year, authorities in New Delhi have launched a sophisticated early-warning system that forecasts PM 2.5 levels, allowing authorities to take quick action to control pollution peaks, such as those that plague the city in winter. The system was jointly developed by India’s Institute of Tropical Meteorology, the Ministry of Earth Sciences and the US National Center for Atmospheric Research. It issues 72-hour air-quality forecasts at a resolution of 400 metres – a finer scale than the past version of the system – and is now being used in Delhi and 19 surrounding districts. During its trial phase, described last month in the journal Nature, the system helped to reduce the city’s winter pollution peak last November by 18–22 per cent.
But while the pollution-control toolkit may be increasingly sophisticated, air quality is still inherently linked to methods of power generation. Seventy per cent of India’s power is coal based, accounting for ten per cent of the airborne particulate matter. One study from a New Delhi think tank showed that India’s coal plants are so inefficient that the government could feasibly shut down 20–30 per cent of them without major disruptions to the country’s energy supply. Many believe the government hasn’t been daring enough.
While New Delhi was grappling with its winter pollution surge last November, COP26 was underway. There, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to cut India’s carbon emissions by one billion tonnes and reduce the carbon intensity of the economy by 45 per cent by 2030. To do so, he pledged to install 500GW of renewable-energy capacity. But according to Bloss, ‘one of the main challenges in the next decade for India’s air quality comes from the interchange between new climate policies and the energy demands of a growing economy’. He points out that India is still decades behind the renewable capacity of other economic powerhouses, such as China. ‘The benefits of changing power generation away from coal combustion to a lower emissions source, which benefits air quality, is less easily realisable for India.’ Modi’s quandary, says Bloss, is how to balance economic development with the national imperative of cleaning the air.