With the situation worse than it ever was in neighbouring China the Modi government is struggling to introduce measures to combat the problem
The results are alarming: not just the number of people breathing in polluted air, but those breathing air contaminated with particulates that are multiple times over the level deemed safe — 10 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic metre — by the World Health Organisation.
Harsh Vardhan, India’s environment minister and a doctor, has played down the health consequences of dirty air, insisting it is mainly a concern for those with pre-existing lung conditions. But that appears to fly in the face of international studies that show that air pollution has a wide-ranging impact, including an elevated risk for heart attacks and strokes, increased risk of asthma, reduced foetal growth, stunted development of children’s lungs, and cognitive impairment.
Dr Vardhan has claimed India needed its own research to determine whether dirty air is really harmful to otherwise healthy people — an argument the government also made in the Supreme Court.
Dr Kumar believes New Delhi’s unwillingness to acknowledge the severity of its pollution crisis stems from its reluctance to take strong measures tackle large polluters. Such a crackdown would inevitably upset powerful vested interests in the automotive sector, highly polluting small and medium-sized industries, power plants, construction companies and farmers. And it could hit economic growth ahead of elections next year.
“They are not unaware but, despite being aware, they deny,” says Dr Kumar, “The corrective measures that would be needed are unpleasant, and might make them lose votes rather than gain votes.”
But environmentalist Sunita Narain, director-general of New Delhi’s Centre for Science and Environment, says official attitudes have shifted since last winter’s catastrophic air emergency, when record pollution levels forced schools to close for several days.
“That was a turning point,” says Ms Narain, who has battled India’s air pollution for decades. “There is outrage now against pollution — it is also now much more of a middle-class issue and government is acting because it understands the public health emergency.”
Northern India’s geography means that pollution generated in the region is not easily dispersed because the Himalayas form a barrier to the north, preventing poor air from dissipating. “We are sitting in a region where the wind dies in winter,” says Ms Narain. “Think of it like a big, massive bowl. That is why the ability to deal with the sources of the pollution become critical.”