India, air pollution, health, vehicles, Bismillah Geelani

More than 600,000 people die in India every year due to air pollution. It is considered the fifth largest health threat facing the country. The air quality has further deteriorated in recent months, creating concern amongst its citizens.  

At his small grocery shop in the suburbs of Delhi 55-year old Sarfaraz Ahmad warms himself with a cup of hot tea. For an asthma patient like him, winter is a difficult time. At this time of year smog and severe haze are common in Delhi, disrupting air and railway traffic. But the most serious effect is on the health of its citizens, like Sarfaraz.    

“It is so dirty here, you can’t even breathe. There’s always an unbearable smell in the air and I feel suffocated. I’m so tired and weak. At times even the medicines don’t work. We have no choice but to live in Delhi otherwise it’s no longer a place fit to live in.

Sarfaraz’s opinion is shared by many living in and around the capital. Rising levels of air pollution in the city are taking a heavy toll on public health. Respiratory diseases, in particular, have seen a phenomenal increase in recent years, says L N Dhar, a Delhi-based medical practitioner. “Pollution affects every age group but elderly people and children are more vulnerable because they have a lower resistance level. It has become very common and even at this time of the season we see a lot of people with respiratory tract infection, throat and chest infection and this is only because of high level of atmospheric pollution.”

Delhi’s air pollution record has always been dismal. But according to this year’s Global Environment Performance Index, New Delhi might have surpassed Beijing as the most polluted city in the world. Environmentalists, like Vivek Vhatupadhiyay, from the Centre for Science and Environment, are not surprised. 

“If we look at long term trends then China has really performed well because the air pollution data available for Beijing reveals a 40 percent decrease in the PM-10 pollutant, whereas in Delhi it has increased by the same amount in the last 10 years. It’s true that our focus should be on efforts to bring down pollution levels and not on making comparisons but we should not be in denial, our pollution levels are far too high and we must accept that.

Transportation is believed to be the single largest source of air pollution in Delhi. There are more than 8 million vehicles already on Delhi’s roads and more than a thousand new vehicles are added to it every day.

“Exposure levels to vehicular pollution are higher in comparison to other sources because the emissions are within the breathing zone and therefore have a greater impact.  We recently carried out a study in Delhi which showed that more than 50 percent of the population lives within 300 to 500 meters of the roads, so the emissions directly affect them.

Two decades ago New Delhi made a transition to clean fuel, and buses, auto-rickshaws and taxis were all converted to Compressed Natural Gas or CNG.

Within just a few months, auto-rickshaw drivers like RS Yadav observed a visible change in the city’s air quality. “There used to be a thick layer of smoke and a lot of dust making travel very difficult. We always used to have a burning sensation in our eyes but with CNG all that changed. It came as a great relief.”

But it did not last long. Vivek, of the Centre for Science and Environment, says the gains from CNG were undone by the phenomenal increase in the number of vehicles, particularly those running on diesel. “They can cause cancer, they are as dangerous as Tobacco, and if you look at the growth figures, about 50 percent of the new vehicles that are added to Delhi traffic use diesel as fuel – compared to only 2 percent a decade ago.

Vivek says New Delhi must take immediate and stringent measures to come out of what he describes as an environmental disaster.

“We will have to  improve public transport and provide people with seamless connectivity. We also need to control the number of vehicles and implement measures like parking charges, a congestion tax, like they do in Beijing and Singapore. So on the one hand, we provide public transport facilities, and on the other, we also shift people towards it. And last but not least, we need to further promote the use of clean fuel and to do this we will have to phase out the dirty fuel.”

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