The World’s Most Polluted City (By Far) – Delhi

If I asked you which is the world’s most polluted city, you’d probably say Beijing. Sure, with the amount of attention the media gives the Chinese capital, you’d be among the many who believe it to be true. However, the funny thing is that Beijing doesn’t even feature in the top 20 most polluted cities in the world according to the WHO. That’s because Beijing has some clean air days and dirty air days, and the latter gets picked up and escalated by the media. Beijing’s average air pollution level is 53. However, that isn’t really the case with Delhi’s air quality, which is consistently poor throughout the year. Delhi’s average air pollution level is 153. Delhi is the world’s most polluted city, on average 3 times more polluted than Beijing. Let that sink in.

The world's most polluted cities in 2014, according to the WHO
The world’s most polluted cities in 2014, according to the WHO

When I was in school, we had this term to describe those who took a while to realise what was going on around them – ‘late chokes’. The late chokes took longer to catch up with things, whether it was a joke or a story. Somehow, there is no better way to describe the people and government of Delhi than late chokes.

Pollution levels in Delhi are headlining newspapers and blogs, and taking up most of my Facebook feed recently. And I’m sitting here wondering – what took you guys so long to realise this? Pollution levels in Delhi have been hazardous in Delhi for years!!!

People are suddenly waking up to the fact that weather forecast in Delhi says “Smoke”. Funny thing, it’s been like that for four years now. And it’s not the first time I’m blogging about the disgusting air quality in Delhi either. In fact, I did this comparison of pictures back in 2012.

What prompted me to write this post is that today Beijing issued a red alert after the PM count breached hazardous levels. Here’s a snippet from a BBC news article:

At 07:00 local time on Tuesday (23:00 GMT on Monday), when the alert came into effect, the US Embassy’s air pollution monitor in Beijing reported that the intensity of the tiny particles known as PM 2.5 was at 291 micrograms per cubic metre.

The World Health Organization recommends 25 micrograms per cubic metre as the maximum safe level.

The World’s Most Polluted City – Beijing or Delhi?

I went online to check the AQICN website to check out the current pollution levels in Beijing. The highest readings that I could find were 331 from the north-western part of the city. That’s more than 10 times the recommended levels of the WHO. Beijing shutdown schools and halted all outdoor construction in light of such high levels of PM.

Recommended Reading  Best Air Purifiers, Pollution Masks for Delhi's Pollution
Screenshot taken on 8 December 2015
Screenshot taken on 8 December 2015

At the exact same time, Delhi’s highest air quality index read 645! Which is, if my math is correct, 1.95 times that of Beijing and 25.8 times that of the recommended levels of the WHO!

Screenshot taken on 8 December 2015
Screenshot taken on 8 December 2015

And yet, there is no action from the government whatsoever. So let the people of Delhi choke to death?

Well, I applaud the Delhi government’s effort to alternate even and odd number-plated cars on the roads starting next year. But let me be honest for a moment, it’s a great step in acknowledging the severity of the air quality issue but it’s a step too late and too little. For starters, even if we were to assume complete and flawless implementation of this rule, it would still mean 4.25 million vehicles on the road everyday. However, the biggest flaw is that this rule is a logistical nightmare. Are all police officers going to be assigned to this one task? Will they be able to keep an eye on every single road and street? Will this ruling lead to an increase in the number of cars per household (so that they have one even and one odd number at least)?

But it’s not only the government that shoulders the blame, it’s the people. In the winter of 2013-14 when I was in Delhi, I made it a point to wear my N95 anti-pollution mask (which I realise now is weak against the current pollution levels) every time I stepped out of my house. Sadly, I never saw anyone else wearing a anti-pollution mask on the streets.

The reaction that my mask brought about from my friends and colleagues is what made me realise how oblivious people were (and some still are) to this epic pending catastrophe. Their opinions were based on a disastrous recipe of short-term thinking, fatalism, arrogance, and ignorance. And I’m inclined to believe that many people still hold such beliefs about the pollution levels in Delhi.

Recommended Reading  WTF Delhi!

The effects of the hazardous levels of pollution have already started to show. In 2010, Delhi recorded close to 20,000 premature deaths caused by air pollution. According to estimates, this number is set to reach 32,000 premature deaths by 2025. I honestly believe that number is safe estimation and that the true brunt will be borne by the children who are growing up in Delhi. These effects may take another 10, 15, 20, 30 years to show. And by then, it might be too late. But that’s India for you – reactive not proactive.

Oh well…for those who are interested, there is a detailed paper by the CSE on what needs to be done to improve the quality of air in Delhi. I skimmed through it and it does put forth many good points. But then, it comes down to implementation. Which is when I lose my faith in the administration.

I’m not sure how long it will take to reverse these changes and bring the air quality levels back to safer levels. This awareness about Delhi’s pollution has been a long time coming in my opinion. Everyone’s been kind of a late choke here. Let’s hope that that’s the only choking involved.

Photos of Delhi’s Pollution

These pictures are from my photography blog and were taken in 2012. This was then. Apparently, it’s gotten much worse. It’s fairly apparent that Delhi is the world’s most polluted city, by far.

Edit: A day after I published this post, the BBC asked pretty much the same question that I’m asking here, why hasn’t the government declared any alert over the hazardous levels of air pollution in Delhi?

Devesh Sahai

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