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Street in Delhi, India
Natural Environment

On the Brink: COVID-19 lockdown clears the air in Delhi

On the Brink is a monthly column focused on the unfolding climate emergency. This month, how the COVID-19 lockdown proved that Delhi’s air pollution crisis, responsible for many deaths each year, need not be a permanent feature of urban life.  

Mandakini Surie, International Development Consultant
9 October 2020

In the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown in Delhi, as residents were coming to grips with the reality of the pandemic, something remarkable happened: we witnessed blue skies over Delhi. Not for a day, or even a week, but for months on end. For weeks, social media feeds were awash with before and after photos of iconic locations such as India Gate and Rashtrapati Bhawan.

These scenes were remarkable, because Delhi has the dubious distinction of being one of the most polluted cities in the world. Every year between October and February, a toxic, grey haze envelops the city and its surrounding areas. Levels of PM 2.5 and PM 10 – carcinogenic particles so minute they can infiltrate deep into the lungs – rise to astronomical levels. Studies suggest that prolonged exposure to PM 2.5 and PM 10 can shave as many as seven years off a person’s life and cause lung cancer and other pulmonary diseases. Children are particularly vulnerable – something I’ve learned the hard way: my son, like many children in Delhi, uses a nebuliser during the winter months. In our house, we have air purifiers in every room and cleaning them is a weekly ritual. 

The reasons behind Delhi’s bad air are complex. A seasonal dip in temperature and change in wind speed leads to the suspension of dust particles, vehicular, industrial, domestic and other pollutants in the lower atmosphere. It is also around this time of year that farmers in the neighbouring states of Haryana and Punjab start preparing their fields for sowing – burning acres and acres of crop residue. The farm fires – at times visible from space – burn for weeks sending toxic plumes of smoke towards Delhi and across other parts of North India. On the worst days, the smog is so bad it is impossible to see beyond a few feet. Sadly, for Delhi residents, staying indoors, wearing masks, school closures, and work from home orders were commonplace even before COVID-19.

As India has urbanised and its cities have grown, the air has become dirtier and more detrimental to public health and wellbeing. 21 of the world’s most polluted cities are in India. Unplanned urbanisation and expansion, often at the cost of green and open spaces, has seen cities choked by cars and buses, buildings and pollution. It is said that breathing just a single day of Delhi’s air is equivalent to smoking 25 cigarettes. The social, economic and health costs are enormous. Studies have found that India suffers more than a million pollution deaths annually – more than any other country in the world.

As India has urbanised and its cities have grown, the air has become dirtier and more detrimental to public health and wellbeing. 21 of the world’s most polluted cities are in India.

In response to the crisis, Delhi’s state government has taken several positive measures. Polluting industries have been relocated, away from central locations and out to the urban periphery. Heavy vehicular movements through densely populated neighbourhoods are now restricted at peak hours. Commuters have been encouraged to use public transport in favour of private vehicles, carpool, ride share and, switch to using hybrid and electric forms of transport that are less polluting. An innovative odd-even scheme saw cars with odd numbered registration plates banned from the city centre on even days of the month – and vice versa. It’s estimated that the initiative removed 1.2 million vehicles from the city’s highways. Mass transit networks have also undergone significant capacity upgrades. While these are all steps in the right direction, the problem is bigger than any single city and requires a multi-sectoral and stakeholder response.

India has started to unlock its economy and, as life slips into a “new normal”, air quality levels have been declining. As the temperature dips and farm fires have restarted in surrounding regions, respiratory complaints are on the rise. The air quality app on my phone is showing the red alert once again, and doctors have warned of the potentially devastating impact that poor air quality could have on efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19. In many circles, discussions about relocating from Delhi to cleaner and greener climes such as the coastal state of Goa will have been revived. The fear of COVID-19 may mean that many “air refugees” do not complete their seasonal migration. Perhaps that will be a good thing: if we cannot outrun the problem, we have no alternative but to confront it. The reality is that for millions of Delhi residents – especially its most vulnerable social and economic groups – moving is not an option, nor should it be.

It is neither possible nor desirable to replicate the lockdown – which caused immense social disruption and economic hardship for millions. However, it did prove without doubt that it is possible to clean up Delhi’s air. Numerous analyses have shown that atmospheric levels of the most harmful greenhouse gases, including nitrogen-dioxide and sulphur-dioxide, fell sharply during March and April. The lockdown has sparked an appreciation amongst urban residents of green and open spaces and has caused many like me to re-evaluate our relationship with the city and our civic role as residents. In the last few months, sales of bicycles have skyrocketed and every weekend there are thousands of cycle enthusiasts taking to the streets. As civil society organisations, environmental groups and clean air campaigners seize this opportunity to double-down on their efforts, there is little doubt that action is needed on a grand scale; a scale that recognises the part that all urban actors – residents, government, civil society, industry and the private sector – have to play in making a city like Delhi liveable, habitable and breathable again. 

It is neither possible nor desirable to replicate the lockdown – which caused immense social disruption and economic hardship for millions. However, it did prove without doubt that it is possible to clean up Delhi’s air.

The COVID-19 lockdown has given Delhi residents a glimpse of something long forgotten: a clear and crisp blue sky. Beyond that, it has also proved that a solution to the “airpocalypse” remains within our grasp – if we choose to act and learn from the lessons of the past few months.