People & Power

Delhi’s Deadly Air

On World Environment Day, People and Power probes shocking levels of air pollution in India’s Delhi.

Delhi, India‘s vast central metropolis and the sprawling seat of government, has the deadliest air of all the world capitals – routinely exposing millions of its inhabitants to a shocking range of life-threatening diseases, which in turn cause thousands of fatalities every year.

So why is Delhi’s air so polluted? And what if anything is being done to clean it up?

On the occasion of World Environment Day, we asked journalist Neha Mehta, who was born and raised in the city, to find out.


By Neha Tara Mehta

When you begin to look into air pollution in India, some very disturbing numbers soon grab your attention.

Take the biggest of them: In 2017, according to a recent study published in the Lancet, an astonishing 1.24 million people died because of India’s dirty air. Of these, nearly 12,000 fatalities were in Delhi, the country’s seat of government.

I was born in Delhi and have lived there most of my life. In the last few years that I have been away, I watched with growing panic as it made the headlines for being the world’s most polluted capital city.

Men walk in front of the India Gate shrouded in smog in New Delhi
Delhi, home to more than 20 million people, is the world’s most polluted capital [Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

This January, we celebrated my niece’s third birthday on a particularly smoggy day with masks at a picnic in the city’s iconic Lodhi Garden – a poignant reminder of the compromised childhood our next generation is living.

That’s why this was a hard assignment for me. Unlike most other stories I’ve covered, air pollution affects me personally – just as it does my interviewees. And frustratingly, there are no quick or easy solutions. The rapidly growing city has an uphill task in cleaning up its air; its complex geography and meteorological factors exacerbated by a mix of politics, poverty and a seeming disregard for rules.

Zero good air quality days in 2018

As I started work on this film, the other number that caught my attention amid the big pollution statistics was: zero.

Greenpeace campaigner Sunil Dahiya first tweeted it: Delhi had zero good air quality days in all of 2018, he tabulated.

It’s a figure that gets lost in official figures of 159 “good, satisfactory and moderate” days in 2018. I later confirmed the zero figure with the environment ministry.

In Delhi, the only requirement for you to be affected by the ill effects of air pollution is that you should be breathing.

by Dr Arvind Kumar, Lung Care Foundation

But I was to encounter the number yet again – this time through environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta, who showed me National Crime Records Bureau statistics on the number of criminal cases registered by authorities in Delhi against air pollution offenders.

It was zero.

“Despite the air quality emergency in Delhi, there’s no question of anyone getting convicted for the simple reason that no case is being registered,” said Dutta.

Dr Arvind Kumar of the Lung Care Foundation told me that he has noticed an increasing incidence of lung cancer among non-smokers, younger people and women. In fact, he says, these days he rarely sees clean, pink lungs – even in teenagers.

“In Delhi, the only requirement for you to be affected by the ill effects of air pollution is that you should be breathing.”

One breath at a time

I met one of those patients, who would previously have been an anomaly in the statistics but is now more commonplace.

Priyanka Jain is 26 and she’s been diagnosed with a stage 4 lung cancer, despite not smoking or having any family history of cancer. Her right lung almost completely damaged, she practices pranayama, yogic deep breathing to keep herself going.

One morning, we climbed up five floors to her terrace to do yoga. By the third floor, she was panting.

“This is what lung cancer does to you,” she said. However, with a resilience I will never forget, she went on to complete the exercise, one breath at a time.

People & Power - Delhi's deadly air
Waste pickers are often forced to involve their children in hazardous work in open landfills and dumpsites [Al Jazeera] 

I found some of the worst affected by Delhi’s air pollution just a few kilometres from where I live – members of a waste-picker community, scratching out a subsistence living from the city’s rubbish.

Flies swarmed through the thick air as children played amid mounds of refuse. We saw a young girl pick up pieces of plastic to use as fuel on a biomass stove, a strong source of household air pollution.

Chitra Mukherjee of NGO Chintan explained that because of their meagre income, waste pickers are forced to involve their children in hazardous work in open landfills and dumpsites. Not surprisingly, they have high rates of tuberculosis, pneumonia and asthma.

But things aren’t much better for children in upscale South Delhi.

We met Dr Shailendra Bhadoriya, a cardiologist who lives close to an incinerator. He told me how he’d had to rush his eight-year-old daughter Nandini to the hospital several times with severe bouts of cough. So, he’d bought a nebuliser for her.

“I have no choice but to make a hospital-like setup at home,” he said.

Delhi's Deadly Air - People & Power
Cardiologist Shailendra Bhadoriya had to rush his eight-year-old daughter Nandini to the hospital several times with severe bouts of cough [Al Jazeera]

It’s anxieties like this that are turning more and more parents into clean air activists. Bhavreen Kandhari, a mother of two is a #MyRightToBreathe member and campaigned to include air pollution in party manifestos.

The recent national elections marked the first time that major parties actually listened to those like Kandhari – but even so, pollution was far from central to the political agenda.

“Citizens are talking and parties are responding. But these promises mean nothing to me. Their implementation will be key,” she said.

The politics of pollution

To understand the policy challenges of cleaning up one of the city’s major polluters, the transport sector, I went in search of Jasmine Shah, my senior from public policy graduate school. He now heads the Delhi government think-tank and has worked on an ambitious electric vehicle plan.

“In a city like London, the mayor is responsible for almost all transport issues,” Shah explained. “But in Delhi, you have the central government, the state government and local bodies which have no accountability towards the state government.”

Delhi’s deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia told me that this multiplicity of government is “killing Delhi”.

“The biggest cause of the city’s pollution is its politics, horrible governance model and the central government’s unnecessary intervention in our work,” Sisodia said.

People & Power - Delhi's deadly air
Like many big cities around the world, there’s pollution from too much traffic and from industry, but there are also specific local causes such as Delhi’s geography and poverty [Al Jazeera]

Across the political divide, we heard a similar comment, this time directed at the Delhi government.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief in Delhi, Manoj Tiwari, acknowledges things are bad and has even has been distributing masks to his supporters. He says the federal BJP government is building expressways and other infrastructure to reduce pollution, but much of the responsibility lies at the local level.

“The Delhi chief minister controls the pollution board. That’s something we cannot change. So, we are worried and are continuously working with citizens to beat pollution.”

While the politics of pollution may be working against the city right now, with Delhi state elections coming up next year, its citizens will have one more chance to push the issue up the political agenda.

It’s a chance the city deserves to shed the tag of the capital with the dirtiest air.

Editor’s note: Priyanka Jain has since lost her battle with cancer and died.

For more on #WorldEnvironmentDay, follow the World Environment Day website.