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Where Is My Fresh Air?: Desi Gas Chambers

Breathing clean air is a fundamental right and necessity of a human being. The nation’s capital has repeatedly failed to fulfil this.

Two weeks back a schoolboy in Delhi developed a respiratory problem and spent two days in the hospital to alleviate his condition. Pollution levels in Delhi are bizarrely high that many diplomats are planning to return back to their country.Air Quality Index (AQI) recordings have consistently hit the maximum of 999. Exposure to such toxic air is similar to smoking more than two packs of cigarettes a day.


Pollution levels in Delhi peaked in November. Levels of carcinogenic PM 2.5 particles in the air were 70 times over the safe limit as prescribed by the World Health Organization, and the air quality index reached 999 micrograms per cubic meter, the highest instruments can measure.

Vehicles, Pollutions and Health Hazards

A recent study in the British medical journal Lancet linked 2.5 million deaths in India in 2015 to pollution.  Delhi has struggled with air pollution for a long time.There are more than 80,000 trucks plying daily in the city and more than 10,000 deaths are attributed to pollution a year. Every day nearly nine million vehicles clog Delhi’s roads. However, the situation has reached crisis levels of late due to a complex mix of factors, including increased chemical residue blowing in from neighbouring states where, around this time of the year, farmers set fire to straw in huge quantities.  A 2015 study suggested that four out of every 10 children in the capital suffered from “severe lung problems.”

The foggy appearance of Delhi is actually a blend of toxic gases with a high concentration of nanoparticles, which are responsible for respiratory health problems. In Spring the air looks much clearer but is actually the time when sunlight reacts with nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to create ground-level ozone, exposure to which is equivalent to rubbing sandpaper on the insides of our lungs. A busy road in New Delhi is akin to Hitler’s gas chambers.

Political Intervention

The Odd-Even rule initiative by the AAP government was received with mixed opinions and did not provide sustainable results because during the trial period only people started to think about buying a second car to circumvent the rule. The environment minister, Harsh Vardhan, underplayed the impact of pollution, saying that it could not be directly linked to deaths.In December 2016, the supreme court ordered the central government to come up with a comprehensive plan to reduce pollution in Delhi. It took the government 10 months to notify the plan, known as the Graded Response Action Plan. An analysis by IndiaSpend found that under this plan, the government should have issued 30 alerts to citizens, and taken various measures, by Nov. 08, since pollution had started rising in October itself. The government did no such thing and started acting only when rising pollution went beyond emergency levels.Evasive measures, like banning construction activity and reducing the entry of trucks into that city, should have been taken days ago but were implemented only when the air went from alarming to apocalyptic.Political will is the need of the hour to mitigate the situation. Having said that, voicing out the concerns of the citizens, strongly and firmly is also required to urge the government to take action.


“The reality is that the pollution in Delhi is very complex. There are a lot of sources. It varies from season to season. It varies by time of day. It varies by neighbourhood,” says Namit Arora, a member of the pollution task force of the Delhi Dialogue Commission, a government initiative in the city. But he insists that the city can make progress. “We can act, and we need to act, on multiple fronts simultaneously.”

Previously when the pollution situation was worse during early 2000s Delhi successfully mitigated the problem by using compressed natural gas. While green energy is a potential solution, it can be made possible only if the government is willing to fund the research.

Finally, at least this year, it is hoped that the wind swaying the smog away will not make the government and the people forget about the immediacy of the situation.

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