Politics and particles: New Delhi fights pollution

Schools were closed in New Delhi on Friday, while some diesel vehicles were taken off the roads and much of the city’s ongoing construction was halted as authorities tried to mitigate the effects of a thick smog of pollution that descended on the capital. India, a disaster that has become an annual vice.

Despite mandates, and an appeal to people to stay indoorsthe measures provided little relief for the city’s many million residents.

“Breathing becomes heavy and long,” said Ram Kumar, a 30-year-old from the city of Gorakhpur, in India’s more rural north, who supports his family at home by driving a rickshaw in New Delhi. “At the end of the day, I feel like I’ve just smoked 20 or 25 cigarettes,” he noted, adding that he could feel the “poisonous smoke entering my chest.”

From the point of view of health, the deadliest pollution contains the finest matter; regularly breathing air polluted with these smallest particles has been linked to cancer, diabetes and other life-shortening conditions. In June, during Canada’s worst wildfire season, New York’s skies turned orange with smoke drifting overhead, with residents suffering from this type of pollution at a concentration of about 117 micrograms per cubic meter. In comparison, on Friday afternoon in Delhi, the average was around 500, reaching 643 in some places.

The cause of the intense annual air pollution that curses Delhi and most of northern India in early winter is hard to pin down. Falling temperatures appear to play a big role as cooler air accumulates in the region, trapping pollutants and preventing them from dispersing over the Himalayas. Vehicles are also a major component of the toxic stew, while dust from construction sites also contributes – for most of the past year, Mumbai, on the west coast, has suffered even worse air pollution than Delhi, which many attribute to recent pollution of Mumbai’s construction mania.

But many scientists say one culprit is particularly to blame for Delhi’s smog: farmers burning rice stubble in Punjab, an agrarian state in the northwest. This practice is used as a cheap and effective way to clean mown fields after harvest, preparing them for the next year’s harvest.

By some measures, crop burning accounts for about 25 percent of the pollution over Delhi; satellite images showed more than a thousand such fires burning in Punjab state alone on Sunday.

But the problem is exacerbated by office dysfunction. Although the same group, the opposition Aam Aadmi Party, rules both Delhi and Punjab, the leaders of neither region have shown much ability to deal with the problem. Authorities in Punjab may be reluctant to crack down on farmers to avoid alienating an important constituency, while those in New Delhi have not had much success in tackling urban pollution, especially from vehicles.

The national government, based in Delhi and run by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, appeared equally powerless to broker improvements. The Bharatiya Janata Party and Aam Aadmi are fierce rivals in the capital, with federal authorities having weakened much of the city’s administration’s powers. Several ruling party leaders in the capital region were also arrested and held without bail on various charges, including money laundering, actions that some observers described as politically motivated.

Jai Dhar Gupta, an environmental activist and air pollution consultant, lamented the lack of action on pollution. With the number of lives affected, he said, the terrible air quality “should be called the public health emergency that it is.” He denounced some of the city’s official efforts, such as dampening street dust to try to keep it on the sidewalk, as grossly inadequate.

Without tackling the causes of pollution, Mr Gupta said, it is unlikely to improve. “There is vehicle fuel burning, our waste burning, stubble burning and many people in Delhi use biomass for cooking,” he noted. “You have to stop these emission sources.”

If local and national authorities “are not able to solve a foreseeable problem, then that is a failure of leadership,” he added.

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