Delhi’s deadly air

NEW DELHI – A diplomat friend returning home after less than three years’ service in India, was asked at his exit medical examination how many packs a day he smoked. When he protested that he was a staunch non-smoker, the doctor commented that x-rays of his lungs showed otherwise. All he had done was breathe Delhi’s air, three smoggy winters in a row.

It really is that bad. When November comes, New Delhi begins to choke on a thick blanket of smog that chokes lungs, corrodes throats, and impairs visibility. It’s not just Delhi’s notorious diesel fumes from car and truck exhausts. There are also factories spewing smoke, charcoal braziers on the sidewalks, coal stoves used by roadside vendors, and agricultural stubble burned by farmers in Punjab and Haryana. Delhi had just three ‘clean air days’ in the whole of 2017. The worst air quality is in winter, when polluted air meets winter fog and is trapped. 

Poor air quality is now costing India at least 1% of GDP every year in respiratory diseases, reduced productivity, and increased hospitalization, and may be reducing Indians’ lifespans by three years. According to the State of Global Air report published by the Health Effects Institute, the absolute number of ozone-related deaths in India rose by a staggering 150% from 1990 to 2015. The economic implications of deteriorating air quality are equally ominous. Welfare costs and lost labor income due to air pollution amounts to nearly 8.5% of India’s GDP. 

Moreover, a recent study revealed that India’s toxic air is also dissuading executives from accepting assignments in Delhi: people are turning down lucrative jobs in order to save their lungs. In 2015, the New York Times’ former South Asia correspondent, Gardiner Harris, explained that he was leaving his post prematurely because merely living in Delhi was damaging his children’s health. Harris wrote that Delhi is ‘suffering from a dire pediatric respiratory crisis in which nearly half of the city’s 4.4 million schoolchildren have irreversible lung damage from the poisonous air’. So he picked up his kids and left India.

Most Indians don’t have that choice. They must live with respirable suspended particulate matter that becomes lodged in the lungs and impairs breathing. A study of Delhi schoolchildren between four and 17 years of age found that key indicators of respiratory health and lung function were 2-4 times worse than in schoolchildren elsewhere. And the damage was irreversible.

India needs to make improving air quality a national priority. It needs to create state and national action plans for clean air; set tough new targets for thermal power plant emissions, factory chimneys, and automobile exhausts; and establish a proper air pollution monitoring system. And it needs to act fast. Already, 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities and towns are in India. More than a million Indians are dying every year because of bad air. 

© Project Syndicate

Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary-general and former Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, and author of Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.

Read also: Poisoning the air we breathe, Sonia Awale

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