Last Updated: 2017-11-13
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By Shakir Husain

NEW DELHI, Nov 13 (NNN-Bernama) -- It is that time of the year again when the Indian capital city Delhi's air pollution problem is talked about in apocalyptic terms. It's early winter and the city was engulfed in a smog last week.

Many, including Delhi's Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, have described the city as a "gas chamber". Even on its clearest summer days, the Indian capital enjoys the dubious reputation as one of the world's most polluted cities.

In winter, the situation gets worse with much higher levels of polluted air and bad visibility, resulting in a spike in health problems related to the lungs, heart and brain.

Poor visibility leads to a sharp rise in road accidents and travel becomes a hassle with sudden cancellations of train services and flights.

These are especially difficult times for children and old people. Last week authorities ordered the closure of schools when the air pollution level was deemed unsafe.

About 30,000 deaths in Delhi and its satellite cities during the winter months can be blamed on pollution-related causes, according to figures in the local media. The death figures, however, do not tell the full story of the air pollution crisis Delhi and the wider national capital region (NCR) faces.

Apart from health costs, the impact on tourism and business is considerable. The Associated Chambers of Commerce of India (Assocham), a business body, said tourism in Delhi and the popular north Indian destinations of Agra and Jaipur may plummet due to alarming pollution levels.

It said foreign tourists are "quite particular about their health and safety" and "even domestic tourists are avoiding Delhi."

Indeed, most foreigners find India's air pollution a shocking exposure. Saaleha Bamjee, a South African, who travelled to India a few days ago couldn't help asking some people if they were "breathing well enough in Delhi". "Never thought I'd have to ask that of anyone," she said.

A foreign journalist in 2015 wrote a scathing article on Delhi's pollution, saying he decided to leave the city to save his children.

"Delhi, we discovered, is quietly suffering from a dire paediatric respiratory crisis, with a recent study showing that nearly half of the city's 4.4 million schoolchildren have irreversible lung damage from the poisonous air," he wrote.

Even college students and people in their 20s are developing serious health problems due to air pollution.

A friend was bluntly told by a doctor to leave to the city after he developed a respiratory condition. "You can decide whether you want to live or you want to earn a living in Delhi," the doctor told him.

For those who can afford, leaving Delhi is no longer a difficult decision to make. "I'm becoming open to the idea of moving out of Delhi now," says Mayank Dhingra, a technology entrepreneur.

There are certain parameters that set off an official alarm on air quality levels. Air pollution is considered severe if the PM10 (particulate matter 10 micrometres or less in diameter) crosses 500 mi­cro­grams per cubic me­tre and PM2.5 (finer particles) is higher than 300 per cubic metre. In most other countries, far lower levels would be considered dangerous.

Delhi’s bad air quality is blamed on many factors. These include weather conditions, dust from construction, smoke from vehicles and burning of fuels, paddy straw burnt by farmers in the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana, waste incineration, and emissions from factories.

While the capital chokes in winter, air quality in most large Indian cities is not good either as the country is the second biggest emitter of sulphur dioxide from its heavy coal use.

The illegal burning of straw left after harvesting paddy crops in Punjab and Haryana is an annual problem as farmers are in a hurry to clear their fields for sowing the wheat crop. According to one figure cited in the media, three million acres of land is used for paddy crops in Punjab, and that produces 20 million tonnes of stubble. As farmers constitute a huge vote bank, no government is likely to put out the cropland blazes.

Millions of vehicles in Delhi and the NCR remain a big source of pollution despite government efforts to make public transport greener and expand the urban train network. There are more than 10 million vehicles in the city of 20 million people.

When the problem worsens, various desperate and ad-hoc steps are taken to combat pollution. One of the controversial methods tried in the past was to restrict the use of cars, with odd and even number plates being allowed on alternate days.

People try to find their own solutions to cope with the pollution. Sales of air purifiers and face masks go up.

Never before so many people have been seen wearing face masks in Delhi. Whether rich or poor, all are trying to survive an environmental crisis in their own ways.