Every morning, I ride my bicycle along the digital display in front of Mausam Bhawan, the Meteorological Department at Lodhi Road. In the winter month, I very often only see one colour there: red. Which means that the air quality is very, very bad, unhealthy, and, in fact, beyond measurement.
So far, not many people are concerned about that in Delhi. In fact, the choking hazyness is mostly referred to as “fog” instead of “smog”, which it actually is.
After the Hindustan Times ran a front-page report , which said Delhi is now the most polluted city in the world, and had actually surpassed Bejing, that previously was regarded to hold this doubious honour, the Indian media finally woke up.
But: Only the media. I haven’t heard of anybody buying a mask now or purchasing an air purifier (well, I might buy one pretty soon for me as well as the office). And the official reaction was – instead of banning cars from the road or slashing out fines on polluting industries or trying to step up electricity supply, so that the poor don’t have to burn waste in the streets to warm themselves and the rich don’t use their diesel generators – so instead of thinking of any logic measure, politics is in a status of denial.
The Ministry of Earth Sciences issued a statement, saying that “unusual meteorological conditions are playing a pivotal role in increased frequency of extreme pollution events dominated by fine particulates”. So, basically, “cooler temperatures” and “calm winds” are to blame.
Then the ministry goes on talking about the “fact” that levels of the very dangerous pollutants with less than 2.5 microns in diameter — scientifically called PM 2.5 — are much lower in Delhi than in Beijing. (These tiny beasts are able to get into the blood and are therefore considered being especially harmful and causing cancer.)
But are the levels really lower?
When I looked up the measurements of the US embassy in Beijing and compared them to the ones from the Delhi Pollution Control Committee at Punjabi Bagh, I found there were more days with a PM2.5 level above 301 (“hazardous”, according to the US embassy) in the Indian capital than in the Chinese city.
By the way, the embassy’s advise at this level is: “Everyone should avoid all outdoor exertion.” Well, I ride my bicycle…
For that I got scolded by researcher and activist Kamal Meattle, who grows his own fresh air. Really. After being told by his doctors that Delhi’s air will kill him some 20 years ago, he started experimenting. And found out that a combination of three common plants in a house or office building lead to measurably cleaner indoor air.
Nowadays, at his Paharpur Business Centre, all air is sucked in at the top, then water filtered, enriched by the plants, further cleaned, and then pumped into the different levels of the building – which is under permanent overpressure, so that no bad Delhi air is coming in through small gaps.
He claims, and I believe him after inhaling the good air in the building, that people inside have less eye irritations, breathing problems, headachse and in fact actually work more efficiently. (Here is his TED video.)
But back to the pollution levels outside.
In a study by Yale university India lands on rank 174 of 178 countries in terms of air quality. Looking more into detail, in the category “Air Pollution – Average Exposure to PM2.5”, India slips to rank 177. Guess who is 178? Right: China.
The new government under the “common man party” doesn’t seem to be looking into the problem. And so there might be more denial to come. Last year’s infamous words of the then Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit still ring in my ears, when she told “The Hindu” the real reason for the smog: “And we discovered that much of the smoke which is hanging over Delhi is actually due to burning of rice stalks in the paddy fields in neighbouring Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. It is as if it is deliberately being done to choke Delhi.’’