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.