Severe Air Pollution Has Transformed Delhi Into a 'Gas Chamber'

Smog envelops the skyline at noon in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, November 7, 2017. Photo: AP
Smog envelops the skyline at noon in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, November 7, 2017. Photo: AP

Imagine looking out your window and seeing nothing but gray—and not a cozy, foggy, rainy day kind of gray, but a thick, dirty, WTF kind of gray. Imagine fog so thick that your usually clear view of the India Gate is blurry, opaque, nonexistent.

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That’s the reality right now for people in Delhi, India. Schools have closed, flights and trains have been delayed, and people are being cautioned to stay inside. All because of outdoor air pollution.

Chief Minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal started tweeting about the situation’s severity in the wee hours Tuesday morning, writing that “Delhi has become a gas chamber:”

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The territory’s air becomes especially polluted every year about this time due to crop burning in nearby states Punjab and Haryana that ends up in Delhi. The cold temperatures and slow winds allow the pollution—primarily particulate matter, which can damage the heart and lungs—to stick around and become especially hazardous.

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Farmers conduct this practice so that they can prepare to grow their winter harvest. Many of them are poor and can’t afford newer technologies that aren’t as dangerous—like a tractor-mounted seeder that can plant new crops without having to destroy what’s left of the previous season’s.

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty
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This time, the pollution has warranted a public health emergency declaration from the Indian Medical Association. The territory is seeing air pollution levels in the “severe” category, reaching 448 out of a scale of 500. Officials don’t expect this to improve within the next couple of days.

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“People should refrain from walking in parks because particulate matter 10 is around 1,000 today,” said Indian Medical Association President Dr. KK Aggarwal, per The Hindustan Times. “Usually, a count of 400 is enough to make a healthy person feel breathless.”

Now, the association is calling for Delhi to cancel a half-marathon scheduled for November 19. Bharti Airtel, an Indian telecommunications servicer, sponsors the race and has made it clear that runners’ safety is its first priority. If things don’t change, the company might remove its name (and support) from the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon next year.

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It said in a statement, per The Hindustan Times:

“Air pollution poses serious health risks and it is important that these concerns are addressed urgently and appropriately by the authorities for Airtel to continue association with the event next year and beyond.”

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Delhi has some of the worst air in the world, but so does the rest of India, though. The country is notorious for its air pollution: Medical journal The Lancet found in October that about 2.5 million Indians died every year from pollution in 2015.

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That’s the most in any country in the world.

Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.

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DISCUSSION

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This is a big problem. Denver had an awful brown cloud problem back in the day. Air was like soup. So were a lot of lumber mill towns in the Pacific Northwest (Libby, MT). Sawdust was burned to generate steam for electricity and heating. The culprits being woodburning and for Denver also diesel trucks, and other things. Delhi’s problem is many fold bigger.

Air pollution when it’s from point sources like stacks and tailpipes is somewhat easy to solve. Area sources, like burning crop residue doesn’t have a solution except for stop burning crop residue. Then food prices go up. Problem ain’t solved.

This problem than becomes an environmental, agriculture and societal problem to solve. It’ll will take more people with people skills (or those who feign interest in people) than some tech titan’s foundation with autonomization of everything dreams.

And here’s where I get on my soapbox. For years engineering schools have forced liberal arts classes on us engineers. Dumb reading and writing crap. It’s time for liberal arts schools to force engineering classes on bright arts and letters types. At least teach kids with high verbal scores the engineering process of planning, design, construction and operation of something. Something could be as useless as an iphone or as important as cleaning up the air. Which leads me onto another soapbox.

India science and engineering has focused on ICT or information and communication technology. This is all the utterly useless crap coming out of Silicon Valley, i.e. snapchat, google glasses, Windows 10 with cloud based solitary, etc.

India needs to focus on producing more civil and environmental engineers who stay in India. Solving this problem between agriculture and city air quality will require a homegrown solution by rural and city folks. It’s not going to be solved via wealthy foundations from US and Europe who provide environmental solutions as charity marketing. And offer tax sheltering for Bono, too.