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Can anything stop the toxic smog of New Delhi?

A pedestrian walks along the roadside amid heavy smoggy conditions in New Delhi. Delhi is considered the world's most polluted megacity, with a melange of factory and vehicle emissions exacerbated by seasonal agricultural fires.
Money Sharma/AFP via Getty Images
A pedestrian walks along the roadside amid heavy smoggy conditions in New Delhi. Delhi is considered the world's most polluted megacity, with a melange of factory and vehicle emissions exacerbated by seasonal agricultural fires.

Updated December 6, 2023 at 2:28 PM ET

NEW DELHI – A man blows cascades of bubbles near the India Gate in New Delhi, hoping to lure children, or at least their parents, to buy his bubble blowing kits. Visitors usually flock to see the giant arch, a war memorial, that towers over a sweeping pedestrian boulevard in the city center.

But on a recent November day, visitors are thin. There's not much to see: The India Gate is a hazy outline in gray, smudgy smog. Bubble blower Gajender Kohli shakes his head. The bad air is bad for business, he says, and it makes him feel rotten. "It makes me sick. It makes the kids sick," he says.

Visitor Prateek Dabhi says he can't wait to leave the city. He's on a leg-stretch stopover during a days-long bus trip to the Himalayas. "We're already losing years of our life," he says, because of pollution in his hometown in southeast India. "If we lived in this pollution, we'd lose even more."

Gajender Kohli blows bubbles to attract customers near India Gate in New Delhi. He says the air pollution hurts business. "It makes me sick. It makes the kids sick."
/ Diaa Hadid/NPR
Diaa Hadid/NPR
Gajender Kohli blows bubbles to attract customers near India Gate in New Delhi. He says the air pollution hurts business. "It makes me sick. It makes the kids sick."

Air pollution is likely costing residents of New Delhi an average of about 12 years of life compared with their expected lifespan if the region met World Health Organization air quality standards, according to a September report by the Air Quality Life Index at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.

Situated in the worst-polluted area of South Asia, a sweeping plain straddling northern India and adjacent areas of neighboring Pakistan, New Delhi is considered the world's most polluted megacity. More than a half-billion residents make their homes in the region.

New Delhi's air pollution problem becomes acutely visible in cooler months, when the air settles and allows smog to build up. During these months, it is often hazardous to breathe. In November, many schools were shuttered for nearly two weeks so children and teachers could stay home and avoid the outdoors.

New Delhi officials have been trying for years to dent pollution levels, from incentivizing electric vehicle purchases to building a sprawling mass transit system. "And yet, it's not enough at all," says clean air advocate Anumita Roychowdhury, the executive directorof research and advocacy at the Centre for Science and Environment.

Roychowdhury lists some of the efforts the New Delhi government has undertaken over some 20 years, from shuttering four coal power plants surrounding the city to ordering large industrial units to switch to less-polluting natural gas. The public bus fleet, which was switched over to natural gas, is now being swapped out for EVs.

To monitor air pollution levels, – and what kind of emissions are contributing to them, — the city has installed more than 40 real-time monitoring stations. Residents get cash back if they buy two- or three-wheeled EVs – scooters and rickshaws, which are the main ways people get around in New Delhi.

"As of today, roughly about 12% of the new vehicles sold in Delhi are electric vehicles," Roychowdhury says. "These are not small measures. No other city in India has implemented all of them together like Delhi has."

Roychowdhury says all those measures have bent the upward curve – but the city's efforts are "overwhelmed, swamped and undercut simply by the sheer volume and numbers" of growth and new pollution.

Within three years, New Delhi's population is expected to reach 39 million people – roughly the population of California, but a fraction of the size. New Delhi's sprawl extends so far that many residents don't actually live within city limits – they technically live in four neighboring states.

"The problem is not Delhi's. The problem is a regional problem," says Jasmine Shah of the Aam Aadami Party, which governs New Delhi. But, he adds, "there is no coordinated action plan." Shah blames the rival, ruling federal governing party, the BJP, led by prime minister Narendra Modi. The same party also governs the states around New Delhi. "They seem to be politicking about this matter all the time." BJP state and federal officials declined to comment for this story.

Roychowdhury says surrounding state and federal governments are taking action, "but it's not adding up." The federal government has made a series of moves, from strengthening fuel emissions standards and expanding renewable energy to providing incentives for electric vehicle sales. It provides extra cash to cities that reduce their air pollution, with mixed success.

In 2021, the government created a commission to help manage air quality in New Delhi and the surrounding regions. It can "direct states to take very specific actions that reduce pollution," says Bhargav Krishna, an expert on air pollution and health. "But it's chosen not to utilize the full range of its powers."

Arvind Nautiyal, a member of and spokesman for that commission, says they were employing a "collaborative, consultative" approach but were not sitting idle. For instance, he says the commission helped shut down some 7,800 industrial units that were using dirty fuels for power. He says there had been "year-on-year, quite a significant difference" in pollution levels.

Although November had been a particularly bad month, Nautiyal says the New Delhi area has now had 206 days when the air pollution levels were just considered "unhealthy" — an improvement over previous years. "There's a long way to go, a long journey ahead, but there has been consistent improvement," Nautiyal says.

Krishna says the tepid support for cleaning up India's deadly air can be explained by the bind the country is in:. India is "a developing country that rapidly needs to pull millions and millions of people out of poverty," he says. "You need to rapidly industrialize ... You need to provide electricity to all of these households." In northern India, that is still done chiefly through coal. "Air pollution is a really inconvenient problem to have,." Krishna says, and for now, "it's seen as an elite issue."

New Delhi's experience underscores this perception. It is where elites — activists and the judiciary — have kept pressure on the local government to tackle the problem. Being the capital, it has also received more attention than other cities and regions.

Activists say it's harder to mobilize people to pressure the government to do more because the most severe harm from air pollution isn't immediately noticeable. Some of the worst impacts come from the tiny particles in smog, known as PM2.5, about 30 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

When you breathe them in, "they can go into your bloodstream and all over your body and act as a toxin," says Christa Hasenkopf of the Energy Policy Institute. "It causes strokes and heart attacks. It can cause even things like cognitive decline and certainly issues with fertility," Hasenkopf says. "It's hard to viscerally understand and connect that someone's illness is caused by, or exacerbated by, pollution. I think that's made it very, very difficult to develop policy and enforce policies to get rid of it."

So New Delhi's residents keep paying the price. Take the children of Bhavreen Kandhari, a clean air activist: "My children hadn't seen a blue sky," she says, until the pandemic halted industry and kept cars off the road in New Delhi.

At New Delhi's Safdarjung Hospital, Razia Begum waits for a doctor to see her three children, aged 10 years to 10 months. They've all got chesty coughs, she sighs. "It could be the cold, or the pollution," Begum says. "If the air was cleaner, my children wouldn't get so sick." For now, she says, the pollution keeps her running to the hospitals.

On a nearby busy road, 35-year-old Baljeet Singh says he's recently learned that pollution is a danger (many people assume it's a normal winter fog). He's about to get on a motorbike. He wraps a handkerchief around his face to protect him from pollution, which experts say can help but is not sufficient. He laughs and asks: "Do you have a better idea?"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.
Ilma Hasan