By Patricia Lee Sharpe
The Chief Minister of Delhi state has asthma and a perpetual cough. Recently he received some advice from the Prime Minister of India, who belongs to a rival party. He should consult a well-known yoga therapist from PM Modi’s home state of Gujarat. Such counsel would sound good to many residents of my home state of New Mexico, where modern medicine isn’t universally appreciated and many practice one or another form of yoga.
But, having just come back from Delhi myself—coughing all the way, in fact—I have a better idea for both CM and PM: Get together and clean up the air in Delhi. It’s toxic, as you can see from the photo above. I took it from my hotel window.
I have a touch of asthma, too, so I started coughing within hours of my arrival in Delhi on February 11th, with plans to stay a month. After ten miserable days (complicated by catching a very nasty virus, though not the deadly dreadful H1N1, which was also floating around), I paid a disgusting flight change penalty to Air France and came home early. Came home to Santa Fe, the clean air capital of the USA. Among cities, anyway. My coughing stopped.
I didn’t need the news stories that appeared in the New York Times a week or so before my departure to know that Delhi has air pollution issues. As long as I’ve been traveling to (and sometimes living in) Delhi, it’s been a problem, especially in the winter, when the phenomenon that’s known as an inversion occurs. In such cases, the air over the city just sits there, getting dirtier and dirtier.
Early on, before a sleepy post-colonial city became a global megalopolis, it was mainly smoke from cow dung fires that fouled the air. As time passed, the culprit was dung plus particulate matter from the ever-multiplying, never-inspected exhaust-belching trucks and buses. At a certain point, Delhi invested in buses fueled by natural gas. The air got cleaner, for awhile. What a wonderful inerlude that was!
But road transport grew and grew and grew, a sign of economic success. Exhaust-maximizing traffic jams, naturally, multiplied. There was also another huge environmental cost to economic success: India relies on coal to feed an increasingly ravenous appetite for power. Maybe the old puff-puff, chuff-chuff trains are electrified now, but they still run on coal, with which India (like China) is all too well supplied.
Those aren't the only reasons why clean air won’t come easily. Delhi’s CM lacks the statutary power to reduce the use of coal or establish pollution standards for all vehicles within its boundaries, even if he wants to, and PM Narendra Modi is motivated to fuel the economy any way he can in order to maintain his grip on power at the national level. What he needs is more industrialization and quickly. The result of this deadlock was perfectly encapsulated in a Hindustan Times headline a day or so before I fled Delhi: “Govts dither as Delhi chokes on its own air.”
Neighborhood studies show that everyone in Delhi is suffering, people living in posh colonies as well as those stuck in disgraceful slums. As of now, in fact, Delhi has won the competition to become the city with the world’s “most toxic” air, according to the World Health Organization, news that must certainly have come as a relief to Beijing, which has worn the bad air crown for years. (See my piece on Beijing last spring.)
For the time being, however, the truly bad news for tortured lungs in Delhi is that information about just how unhealthful it is each day may become unavailable. Citing fears about accuracy, PM Modi's government wants data fed to a Central Pollution Control Board for “calibration and validation” before it’s released to the public. The resulting delays, critics say, will make the information useless. According a recently retired official of the city’s pollution control committee, “They just don’t want people to see the actual data.”
Still—Cough! Cough!—the lungs will know.
Better yet, the U.S. embassy in Delhi is threatening to borrow a leaf from U.S. embassy strategy in Beijing: measure the pollution and release the results, daily, to anyone who wants to see them. Not surprisingly, the government of India is responding as angrily to this idea as China did. However, it may be that the well-publicized American data helped to nudge China toward a more healthful policy on air pollution. Hopefully the same will happen in Delhi.