Indian cities are disappearing in a haze of pollution


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After China, the United States and the European Union, India is the world’s fourth-largest producer of greenhouse gases, making it a major player if the Paris agreement on climate change is going to work.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/01/2016 (2611 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

After China, the United States and the European Union, India is the world’s fourth-largest producer of greenhouse gases, making it a major player if the Paris agreement on climate change is going to work.

So far, India’s prime minister has vowed to increase electricity from renewable sources to 40 per cent from its current 28 per cent by 2030. In a rapidly growing economy, that will be a major challenge. Thermal electrical plants are not the only problem here. Emissions from cars, trucks and motorcycles are increasing daily.

Granted, almost 70 per cent of India’s population is rural and roughly 25 per cent of its people live without any electricity. On a per capita basis, Canada’s emissions are 10 times those of India.

If you live in an Indian city, the urgency of reducing greenhouse gas emissions is close at hand. Since 2014, Delhi has been the world’s most polluted city, with other Indian cities not far behind. In Delhi, every day an additional 1,000 cars hit the road, half of them burning diesel.

On the World Health Organization list of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, 13 are in India, three in Pakistan and two in Bangladesh.

We are not talking about air-quality indexes slightly above healthy limits. We are talking about pollution six to 10 times the healthy limit, especially in winter, when calm cool weather slows the dispersal of the chemical soup called smog.

Every morning I wake to a city that has disappeared. The white highrises and treed streets of Pune have been obliterated by a haze of pollution. In Delhi, air quality in January was so hazardous that, for the first time, the city government ordered private vehicles to be driven on alternate days.

This odd-even experiment lasted for two weeks. With every TV newscast, the air-quality index in Delhi flashed at one corner of the screen. After a week of restricted driving, with Delhites co-operating by carpooling and taking the metro in droves, the index was still more than 400, eight times the healthy limit.

An air-quality index, I have discovered, measures a number of pollutants, including nitrous oxides, sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone and something called particulate matter. The smallest grains of particulate matter, PM 2.5, cause the most damage to health.

Particulate matter has several sources here, including the smoke from burning wood, cow dung and crop stubble. Then there’s the dust from roads and fields in the long dry season, and the rapidly increasing burning of fossil fuels.

Think soot. Soot from industry, trucks, electrical plants and private vehicles. The individual particles may be invisible, but every day they accumulate in your eyes, throat and lungs. What air pollution means in terms of health are increasing rates of asthma, chronic bronchitis, lung cancer and heart attacks. In Bangalore, an estimated 50 per cent of children suffer from asthma.

Indian cities have been fighting air pollution for more than 10 years. Now Delhi has a huge, efficient metro system. Since 2005, its buses, taxis and auto-rickshaws have operated on compressed natural gas (CNG). Other cities such as Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore, have also increased the use of CNG in public transport.

Still, air pollution levels are increasing. The improvements in roads and public transportation have not been able to meet the needs of burgeoning urban populations. City roads are congested and more and more vehicles are stuck in traffic jams for hours.

The Delhi odd-even experiment is over now. It did not improve air quality much at all. However, the Centre for Science and Environment reports PM 2.5 levels in Delhi peaked a week after the experiment ended, so perhaps the experiment had a moderating effect.

More important, perhaps, was the level of co-operation shown by the 18 million people of Delhi. It showed people want better air quality, and are willing to make sacrifices to get it. Recognizing this, the central government has speeded up the implementation of European emission standards for all vehicles.

Since 2010, Euro 3 emission norms have been enforced for all new cars across the country while Euro 4 norms have been in effect in 13 major cities. The plan was to move next to Euro 5 and then to Euro 6 norms, which were introduced in Europe in 2015.

In the midst of the Delhi crisis, the government announced it will move the whole country to Euro 6 by April 2020. The auto industry and petroleum refineries have major changes to make in the next four years. Then there’s the matter of getting old cars, trucks and two-wheelers off the road.

Narendra Modi, the charismatic prime minister of India, who won a sweeping majority in 2014 by promising to end corruption and provide electricity, education, water and roads for all, now has an even weightier agenda.


Faith Johnston once worked in India with Canadian University Service Overseas. She lives primarily in Winnipeg, but spends a few months in India every year.

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