New Delhi: Air Pollution Threatens Lives, Experts Predict Worsening Conditions

Written by: Allison Lee

On Tuesday, November 5th, haze levels in New Delhi, India, caused the city to enter the 10th consecutive day of hazardous air pollution, with pollution levels reaching ten times higher than the safe concentration. Conditions are worse than ever before and future prospects are looking dim if immediate action is not taken. Environmental and health experts are responding with panic as the conditions worsen.

Officials state that farm fires are likely the cause of the rising pollution. The surrounding agricultural communities burn their crops in preparation for new seasons, releasing atmospheric pollutants into the air. Sunlight and heat react with the pollutants and form smog, which then enters the city. Another probable cause is the celebrations surrounding Diwali, the Hindu celebration of light, in which many fireworks are set off. Following the celebration, pollution levels have reached over 50 times the healthy limit. The acrid smoke from the fireworks becomes trapped within the cool air and forms a grey haze.  

The alarming conditions caused flights to be cancelled and schools to close, raising concerns for the lives of the over 21 million citizens who occupy the 16.49 square miles of New Delhi. The limitations on traffic, along with the collapsing economy, is causing concern for many poverty-stricken families. This concern has been the reason for many people to leave the city in search of better living conditions in places such as the nearby state of Goa, cities like Bangalore or Mumbai, or Canada. Those who left Delhi have reported feelings of relief and newfound health in areas with better air conditions. The number of people who are fortunate enough to flee the environmental hazards pale in comparison to those who are migrating to New Delhi in search of economic opportunity. With this increasing population comes an increase in pollution, causing further damage to the already over-populated area. 

A public health emergency was officially declared on November 1st, with the pollution being reportedly visible from space. This emergency raised immediate concern for citizens’ well-being. Experts stated that breathing air in for one day is the equivalent to smoking 50 cigarettes. Mild symptoms are experienced by all citizens and appear to range from eye-burning to sore throats. However, with increased exposure, the effects of this have been fatal. Causes of death include heart attacks, strokes, pneumonia, lung disease, and cancer. In 2017 alone, approximately 4.9 million deaths occurred due to air pollution worldwide, with about 1.24 million occurring in India. The numbers have since risen and unless immediate action is instilled, there is no foreseeable ending to this catastrophe. 

Aside from health concerns, scientists are currently focused on the large-scale environmental impact of the pollution. Concerns surrounding green-house gases and global warming are becoming increasingly prevalent, especially in areas of high carbon-dioxide production. As studies show the rising worldwide devastation caused by climate change, it is apparent that policies and strategies must be formed to reduce air pollution caused by agricultural and societal factors. 

Authorities have made various attempts to decrease air pollution throughout the city. An “odd-even” car rule was established to cap the allowable traffic, banning more than 4 million cars from the road daily, with a fine of $56 for any violator. This rule allows non-transport vehicles to be on the roads based on the last number of their license registration. If the numbers are odd, they are allowed on odd days and if they are even, they may drive on even days. However, many vehicles have been exempt from this ban including “those of the President of India, Prime Minister, women drivers, school children in uniform, patients, emergency, enforcement and embassies.” These exemptions as well as the large number of violators have made the ban ineffective in preventing air pollution. Bans have also been placed against the burning of crops, yet farmers refuse to comply. These responses meet criticism as the government fails to eliminate the major causes of pollution. 

India Supreme Court members have shamed local authority figures for the lack of response to this pressing issue, declaring that the New Delhi government “miserably failed” in their duty to protect citizens. Outrage sparked after no actions were taken to prevent the annual festival, a mistake that dramatically impacted the environmental conditions. Further, the court announced that this failure is a violation of human rights which is putting lives at stake. Society is facing devastating consequences as politicians refuse to act. 

Although the prospects are grim, not all hope is lost for New Delhi’s air quality. A number of possible solutions have been proposed to stop the pollution at its source. One such proposal is to gasify the straw and stubble instead of burning it. This two-stage process, “yields a fuel gas that can be used for cooking, heating and power generation, and any type of transport fuel.” Gasification differs from combustion because it occurs when biomass is partially burned in a limited supply of oxygen. It releases a large amount of carbon, carbon monoxide, and methane instead of the carbon-dioxide that is produced by combustion reactions. Processes such as Fischer-Tropsch synthesis and the water-gas shift reaction have been perfected to convert biomass into transport fuels. This transformation would provide economic opportunity and limit the pollution being expelled. 
The proposed solution of gasification could be the key to economic growth in New Delhi.  This method may “give urban solid waste a value and get it off the streets, stop the burning of straw and stubble, give farmers a valuable ‘lean’ gas to use for cooking and generating electricity, and provide them with biochar – a solid, carbon-rich residue that they can briquette and sell to large scale modern bio-fuel plants planned for Europe and the US.” The biochar is composed of 70% to 80% carbon and contains no sulfur, making it environmentally sounder than many imported types of coal. It is inexpensive and provides profit to farmers who sell the product. As it is converted into transport fuels, it would produce, “between 15 and 20 million tonnes of transport fuels.” This would significantly lower the oil imports and funnel money directly into the economy. In a time of environmental crisis, this solution gives true hope to the citizens of New Delhi.